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from A Squandered Life / Norton Commando '70

Updated on March 2, 2016
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Born without a clue. A lifetime later, situation largely unchanged. Nevertheless, one perseveres.....

“I just knocked out one of the cows.”

That summer seemed a particularly long one. It may have been the one in which I spent the most time down on the Vermont farm. It also meant I got to know some of the neighbourly assets a lot better - prime among whom was Dan.

Dan was the son of a farmer up the north road from the crossroad in front of our house. He was about my age, had worked on the farm since high school, and had hardly ever left the neighbourhood, but he already seemed a lot more worldly than me. He was built squarely and had massive work-worn hands with arms to match. He had a quiet practicality about him which to this day I envy. A problem was never an impasse for him. It was always just a blip in the process of getting a day's work done.

One morning I wandered up to his place and found him standing just outside his barn examining a piece of oily cogged machinery in the sunlight. At my greeting he looked up and said, “I'm great thanks. Just gotta fix the tractor.” He then led me back into his barn and there, laid out like an artistic agri-industrial tableau, was his tractor, split in the middle at the gear box, with the massive rear wheel section rolled back and to the side. Both ends of the tractor were supported by heavy wooden blocks and I was staring into the black bleeding bowels of each. Dan calmly walked over and squatted and began to push his arms into those bowels. “It was missing a gear so I had to replace one of the cogs,” he explained. Stupefied I said, “And you just happened to have one?” “Yeah,” he said, gesturing, “I took one off that old one over there.” I looked where he'd pointed and saw a straw and dust covered engine and gearbox split and lying on it's side in a dark corner vaguely illuminated by powdery shafts of sunlight coming through the loose boarding of the barn walls. “I'll be finished before lunch,” he added.

Another time I went up there and Dan's normally congenial eyes were clouded with anger. I'd never seen him like this before and asked if he was okay. “Yeah,” he said, “I just knocked out one of the cows.” It seems one of the cows, in a rambunctuous moment, had head butted his sister to the ground. Incensed, Dan had grabbed a rock and clobbered the cow on its head with such force that the cow passed out and was lying in a heap in the pasture. The sister and the cow both recovered fully and neither seemed to bear any grudges. The latter was calmly awaiting milking with the rest of the herd later in the day.

Although I'd read books about internal combustion engines, I'd never had the opportunity to pull one apart. Many of the concepts seemed impossible to me as I tried to imagine everything happening fast enough to power a set of wheels. Dan used patiently and graphically to explain four barrel carburettors and performance cams and power bands to me to fill out my scanty knowledge. He always had a couple of cars on the go, one for clattering about in; the other for pulling apart and putting back together. He would occasionally go to the local drag races and win awards in his class simply because he had the engine tuned to absolute perfection.

Dan also had a motorcycle - a menacing Dunstall Norton 750 Commando. It was a hard, unyielding machine with stiff suspension and a harsh, irregular and vaguely threatening chortle at idle. By comparison, my stately BSA seemed over weight and soft.

One evening Dan showed up for a party at our house on his Norton and made the mistake of offering me a spin. I got aboard and kicked the thing into life. It immediately bucked and heaved like a bronco. I put it into gear, let the clutch out, and nearly whip-lashed my neck as I pulled out on to the gravel road. I rode gingerly across the gravel ruts, making for the paved road a few yards on. The light was dimming so I switched on the headlight. The paved section was straight so I twisted the throttle and was at the end of that straight so fast that I nearly overshot it. More sedately I turned left on to another gravel section and headed off on a loop that would eventually bring me out back by the house.

In the back sections of the loop I rode relatively sensibly and, by the time I was on the return leg and could see the lights of our house, I was feeling pretty cocky. Thinking the people at the house would be impressed by the throaty roar, I hit the throttle again for the home straight. Unfortunately, the straight was only straight if you were travelling at a tractor's pace. The slight bend at the kind of speed I was beginning to hit was suddenly much more pronounced than I'd imagined and, in a blink, the bike's headlight was shining into brush. The Commando hit the turf edge of the rode with sufficient force to throw me down the road and high-side itself into the brush. In slow mo I watched the headlight illuminate a receding tunnel into the brush as I skittered on my back down the gravel road. We both came to a halt at about the same time and there was a moment of silence as the engine stalled beneath its glowing light in the trees.

I got up in a daze and began to hear voices coming up from the house. Feeling as complete an arsehole as I've ever felt, I wended my way through the grasping brush to find the bike twisted and lying on its side, its headlight still calmly illuminating the ghastly scenario I had engineered for it. By this time Dan and a few other party-goers began to arrive on the scene, scrabbling through the brush and calling out. I was dumbstruck with mortification as Dan was the first to arrive. “Dan, I....” “Are you all right?” he interrupted without so much as a glance at the bike. “Are you okay? What have you done to your shirt?”. I looked down. My shirt seemed fine if a little loose. I pulled at the sides and found tattered shreds. The back had disappeared and I realised my back must be pretty unsightly as well. Dan wouldn't let me mess about trying to get the bike up. “Just leave it there. I'll get it in the morning.” he said, ushering me back to the road and down to the house. Feeling like the biggest dumbass the world had ever known, I retired to a hot bath, soaked all the gravel out of my back, and missed the rest of the party.

The next day Dan and I went to retrieve the Commando. It was a bit twisted and had torn undergrowth and bits of sapling wedged into all it's forward facing gaps, but it started on the second or third kick. We drove/pushed it back up to the road and he limped it home. Despite Dan's objections, I insisted on covering all costs and giving him my BSA for the duration. My summer of bike freedom was set back for a few weeks. On the plus side, Dan really liked my bike. “It's really comfortable,” he said, “It's more relaxed and I drive much more slowly.”

© 2013 Deacon Martin


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