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With Lawrence in Arabia and Me at the Motor-V
2/27/2012 10:09:31 AM
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Assorted musings on motorcycle related topics and the Middle East, mixed together with a healthy splash of testosterone and served cold on the half shell.
WITH LAWRENCE IN ARABIA AND ME AT THE MOTOR-V…
Like almost every other humming bean in the Federal territory known as Californica, sometimes also known as the Land of Fruits & Fairies to the more prejudicially inclined amongst us, I have occasional need of the services of the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. This time it was a visit to pick up a vanity plate for my 2000 Honda VFR800FI sportsbike. Since from a distance the brilliant yellow paint my machine sports makes the bike look more like a two-wheeled screaming yellow zonker than a motorized euthanasia machine (and partly owing to its being manufactured in the Land of Amaterasu), I elected to request a personalized plate that says ‘KIIRO’: Japanese for ‘(the color) yellow’, the meaning will undoubtedly elude all those on the roadways save those who have had a fairly intensive Japanese language course at somepoint in their lives. At any rate, why make it easy for the rubes (e.g. ‘1forBill’, et al). Think of it as a test of broad-based cultural literacy, if that helps, or don’t think any more of it at all (like 99.9 % of the population, I suspect) if that helps even more.
At any rate, a trip to MOTORV, as the department is frequently referred to, is about as unfailingly entertaining as a trip to Disneyworld (in this I am being presumptive, having never graced that venue with my cynical presence), since Disneyworld is also one of the biggest hoi poloigeek shows on the planet. Sacramento has several of these monstrous,nightmarish DMC offices, the ones located in the more…ahem…diverse areas being more like gangbanger ‘in da hood’ showcases that older, gentle and well-mannered honkies feel somewhat nervous in. Of them all, however, the one located in the nearby district of Carmichael (part of greater Sacramento) is perhaps the least offensive (but still highly amusing) and also perhaps the most efficient one to ‘get serviced’ at, since it’s usually filled to capacity with poor white trash than with Crips and Bloods clones.
Strangely enough, the majority of the visitors to these DMV offices fail to make appointments in advance (despite its being a fairly painless process, on-line) and show up spontaneously, electing to sit out the up to four hour wait to be seen as a drop-in client. Consequently, the waiting gallery is typically filled up with a wide and bizarre array of people who act and sound as if they just got off the bus from the hills of Arkansas. Collectively, in a visual context, they present the onlooker with enough demographic ‘eye candy’ to keep the most jaded people-watcher alert and wide-eyed.
Among the more interesting sights are the following candidates for Ripley’s Believe it or Don’t. A four hundred pound woman fashionably squoze into Spandex tights that would make a German sausage scream for mercy. A skinny teenager with tats on every exposed inch of his arms and way cool levis ten sizes too big that he seems to have to hitch up every few seconds (or risk wearing them around his ankles). A tall blonde, fabulously endowed and looking as if she just stepped out of a Supermodel advertisement (until she opens her mouth to reveal terrible teeth and even more terrible English). Two aging geezer-bikers, bandana clad and wearing almost identical cut-off Levis jackets with ‘HARLEY-DAVIDSON’ emblazoned on them (one of them keeping up a running dialogue of smart-ass remarks assumedly aimed obliquely at those around him, in apparent demonstration of how cool he is). An elderly Italian-American grandfather renewing his driver’s license attended by a teenaged Italian-American grandson. A Hmong gang member, followed by a corpulent wife and their new baby. An ectomorphic and androgynous appearing young person of indeterminant gender (finally figured out he/she is a he), whose turned-in-on-self body language and stooped posture reveals a strong sense of generalized anxiety and insecurity. Several big burly guys, wearing reversed ball caps that look like they never managed to quite leave adolescence behind. A young woman whose cell phone seems to be superglued to her hands as she pounds out text messages at a blazing rate of speed, the perfect picture of studied concentration to the point of her being the only apparent intelligent (I use the term ironically here) life form in her part of the Universe. One or two elderly Sikh males topped with pastel colored ‘Dastar/Pagri’ headcoverings and thick full beards (probably both named Singh). A young black male who is either a twin brother of ‘Lil Wayne’ (separated at birth) or a damned near identical clone. A liberal scattering of GOBs (‘good ole boy' rednecks and usually attended by wives and kids who were out hoeing rows just a few hours ago). A couple of skanky black women with fulsome bagongas that defy imagination (and gravity, yo-ho-ho!) and asses that would doubtless make a Baboon jealous. And finally, a sweet, elderly honky couple who look like they just stepped out of a nearby Presbyterian Church Sunday service.
These are just a few of the many sights to be seedn there and I’ll let you populate the gaps between them with every possible 10th standard deviation human stereotype conjurable. After surveying all this superfluity of visual and cultural diversity, my most immediate thought was “My GOD! All these yahoos are shortly going to be sharing the already far too congested roadways with me!” The additional reflection that that could barely speak standard English and/or write their own names (let alone pay attention to the road and drive in a straight line) settled in on me as I pondered the implications. It was sort of how I would imagine someone who has just been given a death sentence would feel, as the judge glares balefully from his bench.
In that context, I am reminded of a classic utterance of actor Michael Caine in the movie ‘The Last Valley’ (a film made in 1970 about the European 17thCentury 30 Years War, directed by James Clavell and based on a novel by J. B. Pick), as he confronts a captive he is about to disembowel: “Make your peace with your god…whomever he may be.” Of course, Caine’s pronouncement is the result of thoughtful and reflective savagery; the nonchalant savagery on eencounters daily on the highway is of the frontally lobotomized sort. As a born-again-atheist, I’ve always loved that line!
And speaking of that lovely little (big) war that ravaged Europe for so many decades, it was ALL about religion initially (Catholicism vs. Protestantism),although towards the end it translated more into a war of regional monarchical designs on power and realm-building. It serves, aside from being another wonderful example of how religion has acted throughout the centuries as the greatest check on rampant human growth on the planet, as merely more emphatic evidence that humming beans absolutely DO NOT deserve to be the highest evolved sentient life form on this globe. Greater than pestilence, disease, famine, and/or any other natural catastrophe, interestingly enough, The Thirty Years war is simply another compelling reason for eschewing anything even vaguely smelling of faith and belief in invisible, omnipotent deities by one’s fellow vertebrates.
Fortunately, with an appointment having been made to pick up my bike’s vanity plates, I was spared more than about fifteen minutes of observing this human circus and concluded my business at MOTORV once again reminded that there’s no such thing as a modicum of rational, enlightened, cooperative intent among your average Californica drivers these days. Especially since even the lamest lame-brain among them can easily lease the biggest, baddest muscle car available to indulge his arrested adolescent tendencies on the highway. When one factors the range of mental and/or lifestyle impairments evident at the Carmichael DMV with the added distractions of friends, cellphones, GPS devices, texting and steroid-fueled CD players and what-have-you, it should be clear enough to even the least capable cretin amongst us that being on a bike (a motorcycle) anywhere near a freeway (or heavily travelled road) is about as wise as playing Russian roulette with a full cylinder on your Webley .455.
Having taken a day off from the office to take care of this rather off-putting task yesterday (the DMV visit), I encountered a neighbor who lives across the street from me as I was returning. In the course of a brief chat, he volunteered the fact (noticing my two motorcycles parked outside near the garage) that he had several friends who had Harley-Davidson cruisers that had recently sold their machines, feeling that to drive a motorcycle anywhere around four-wheeled traffic these days was a sure ticket to harp and wings infinity. Unable to fault his basic logic in any way, shape or form, I hastened to state that an underlying passionate love of the technology behind these two-wheeled motorised machines was for me just as important as actually driving the things. Although trying to explain that passion is a bit difficult to anyone who has never been bitten by the motorcycle bug, I nevertheless tried to make my point that yes, I agree that the risks are monumental and that by certain definitions riding amotorcycle today is like volunteering to be an organ owner in advance of the inevitable, but a life that is led in which no rules are ever violated (either the statutory or the behavioral variety) is a dull life indeed. As long as one accepts the merciless dictates of risk-management and is prepared to accept the consequences of any unforeseen risk that might lie without one’s own calculations, the assumption that cycle riding is a thinly disguised death wish is still highly arguable (although just barely).
As long as I’m off and running on the subject of two-wheeled death, I am reminded of the fact that CRAIG’S LIST has become an increasingly important part of the motorcycling world over the past 10 years. As trends develop with in the (motor) cycling world, one of the most recent is a resurgence of nostalgia for the good old bad days of 60s era ‘café racing’ rocker culture. Having already covered that subject to some extent in a separate piece, I won’t recover any of that ground here other than to say that today’s ‘boomer generation’ are largely behind the phenomenon, since as in other areas of former adolescence today’s ‘old guys’ now have (presumably) the means and economic wherewithal to indulge in certain youthful activities that may have been closed to them as youths. Translated, this means that guys who are now old enough and wise enough to know better than to expose themselves as potential road kill are now fueling their nostalgic desire to recapture those glorious days of puerile, testosterone-fueled innocence by buying bikes. Since the average cost of a new, state of the art motorcycle is now running at about US$ 10,000.00 or so, in order to buy one of these street level fighter jets one needs to be either a wealthy & secure geezer or a poor and penniless kook (surfing jargon for ‘one who wishes he were’) biker (who typically runs up a huge credit loan debt to buy a machine). The only option to laying out some serious green portraits of the presidents is to scour the surroundings for a good, well-preserved and not totally run out ‘pre-owned’ bike (don’t you just love those clever advertising euphemisms?). Fortunately, that’s where CRAIG’S comes into the scene, since it is a really quite useful triaging process whereby one can search one’s local vicinity for used motorcycles (and related gear).
Unfortunately, despite its obvious usefulness, CRAIG’S LIST has also become a number one playground for assorted scammers, gyp artists, no-gooders, and others intent on defrauding the public, so one has to exert caution and go about following up offerings appearing there with prudence and caution. So much has CRAIG’S LIST become the most frequently availed used motorcycle resource that it was the subject of at least two columnar editorial opinions in the March 2012 issue of MOTORCYCLIST MAGAZINE. It seems that aside from the implicit scams and fraud that one runs across therein, the level of literacy exhibited by many classified advertisers is so deficit as to make some of the ads extremely entertaining to read.
As noted (not without a twist of mirthful irony) by the two columnists (Ed Milich and Jack Lewis), some of the terms used demonstrate emulation worthy of the great P.T. Barnum himself. Here are a few examples to illustrate the point that embroider somewhat around Milich & Lewis' own original responses.
“All original!” (I’ve never ‘fixed’ any of the stuff the factory engineers so carefully screwed up)
“High performance!” (Far TOO much power; so much in fact that I’ve shit myself more than a few times in tight turns)
“Not running now, but ran when last parked” (About 40 years ago)
“Runs” (As long as you’re also pushing it)
“All highway miles” (I ran the living crap out of this bike and redlined it every time I had a chance)
“Custom bike: many improvements!” (Cluttered with useless, expensive accessories that don’t add a thing to its performance and/or handling).
“Some work needed: great project bike!” (Lottsa luck, Geronimo! You’ll need a winning lottery ticket to ever get this baby back on the road)
“Adult owned” (I’m not some young,brain-dead punk who does wheelies on the freeway at 90 mph during rush-hour)
The list goes on virtually indefinitely, but you get the drift, I'm sure. A snake oil salesman is still a flim-flam artist, whether he’s 20 or 80 years of age. That said, however, there are some very good deals to be found on CRAIG’S LIST, if one searches carefully and assiduously enough. One of the complications presently impacting the search for a good used bike on CL is that there are a great many geezers (with loads of money) who are now looking for used 70s era Japanese bikes to turn into café racers. One direct consequence is that some of the sellers are operating under the assumption that even a barely discernible pile of miscellaneous cycle parts is worth big money, and prices are creeping higher all the time for what would otherwise be considered used-up, worn-out and worthless junk. And of course the euphemisms used to describe these broken-down and pitiable beasts (see above sampling), when expressed in the worst pre grade school English imaginable, are often enough to bring a smile (or tears) to your face. Not a small number of them are expressed in the sort of difficult to understand and frustrating to read ‘cellular texting’ shorthand that is so popular among teens and post-teens (i.e. “u cn get hole bike cheep. Has gud breaks vr pwerfil lo miles & pliz, no loballers…”, etc.). Perhaps the most amusing ads are those that state simply ‘Honda $15,000’, as if that gives us all the information one needs to plunk out a small fortune for some goofball’s trashed out bike. The fact that any reasonably composed ad should contain certain basic information seems to elude many of the ad placers (who are doubtless either youths or just not very bright to begin with). In a typical motorcycle ad this consists of model year, manufacturer, model, overall miles, operating information (good, bad, ugly), repair & maintenance (records available vs. no records), clear title and ownership problems (“Well, I uh, seem to have lost the pink-slip so can’t give that to you”, etc.), and any other evidence available of care received (and related details). Yet, surprisingly, this basic stuff is often ignored and still they expect serious interest in their machines. Yow,mama!
Although today there is a broad range of motorcycle owners that span every percentile point of the curve, in America, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the typical ‘sportsbike’ owner is young, not very literate and more interested in radical (read: ‘extreme’) thrills and chills than in broader appreciation of the technological aesthetics of the bikes themselves. Although wisdom and awareness supposedly come with age & experience, this is not always guaranteed, since it’s also fairly safe to presume ‘once stupid, always stupid.’ Looking around at the demographic samplings found at the MOTORV, I’d have to put my money on it. They either get beyond this risky involvement with speed, power and sudden death to survive (and have therein hopefully learned a few things), or they don’t. Today’s bikes are so much more sophisticated and powerful than they used to be, and today’s highways are so much more hazardous for two wheelers than before (due to increased utilization, distractibility, and lowered standards of driver training), that many geezers trying to recapture their (motorcycling) past don’t realize their age-related personal limitations until they’ve been caught in the crosshairs of a semi-truck & trailer and end up as a permanent Mack Truck hood ornament.
Serving to refresh my own awareness of how agility on a bike changes inversely with age, the weather yesterday (Sunday) was actually nice enough to permit airing-out the two bikes I presently have in my stable. One is a 1991 Yamaha FZR1000, while the other is a 2000 Honda VFR800i ‘Interceptor’. The Yamaha is a streetable version (‘sportbike’) of the homologated racing bike that inspired it, complete with rear-sets, clip-ons, and that characteristically rider hyperscrunched-crouch position that typifies track bikes. The Honda, on the other hand, is somewhat different in that Honda decided to make the fore & aft V-four powered Interceptor what they termed a ‘sport-tourer’ design, with a slightly less radically crouched riding position that enables a greater degree of comfort for longer rides (i.e. ‘touring’ and in fact Honda markets the Interceptor as a ‘Sports-tourer’). In this last objective, I have to observe that they indeed created a remarkably unique and pleasing machine. Both bikes have a considerably different feel to them as a result and it’s great fun having two very different machines to play with, as the mood varies. The Yamaha FZR1000, with its transverse four cylinder design and 1 liter capacity, is wickedly fast and powerful (0 to 60 in 2.7 seconds, with a top end judged to be about 175-180), but the Honda VFR, with its V-four 0.8 liter engine and roughly comparable weight, is a bit more civilized but still has lots of torque and power on tap.
All of this shouldn’t hide the fact that both machines perform and handle radically different than the typical street cruiser (certainly they are worlds apart in that respect from the venerable, classic Harley-Davidson style machine that seems to be the favored ‘geezer bike’ these days). While the Harley (and its clones) is designed to provide comfortable straight-line cruising, the sportbikes require far more coordination and operator skill than the former do. It struck me, in thinking this proposition over a few days ago, that this may at least partly explain why one sees so many older guys on Harleys and so many younger ones on sportbikes, since traveling fast and straight certainly doesn’t tax the reflexes as much as fast and twisty maneuvering does, on roads that are anything but straight. Therein also lies the obvious appeal for younger bikers, naturally, since chills and thrills go with the hormone turf for those under age 35, an operational driving venue that gradually but surely closes off with increased age.
My point here (if there is one…) is that considered against the supportive evidence that today’s motorcycling is exponentially more hazardous than it used to be, it certainly makes a lot more sense that older guys stick to less radical machines (like the Harley) and leave the suicycle sportbikes to those possessed of a younger set of reflexes and sensory receptors. Yet when (if ever) has reason and common sense dictated the choice of motorised two-wheel vehicle one prefers? Quite frequently in human affairs, I feel it safe enough to say, the often conflicting complexity of human nature enables raw aesthetics to overwhelm our reasoning facilities and leads us to make decisions based more on pure emotion than on cold and objective, thoughtful reflection. Perhaps the most perfect case in point I can think of at the moment is that of T. E. Lawrence, known to most of us (thanks to publicist and showman-turned-celebrity newscaster Lowell Thomas, who almost single handedly created the legendary nature of Lawrence’s life) as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, an individual although a brilliant adept in a broad range of undertakings requiring higher thought processes and applied intelligence, who loved few things dearer than taking his 1934 English Brough Superior S100 motorcycle out on speed runs that occasionally topped 100 mph (traveling English country roads, which were often unpaved). It was on one such trip that he lost his life in 1935, althoughthe best estimate of his speed at the time of the fatal encounter (in a blind dip, with two schoolboys on bicycles) was only about 45 mph. Lawrence was fascinated by machines and technology, certainly finding a perfect expression of that synergy in the precision-made, hand-crafted Brough motorcycles he was so fond of. But he was also drawn to aviation and aircraft (partly drawing on experience he gained flying occasionally as an observer with the RFC over the tribal areas of then British protectorate Mesopotamia/Iraq, immediately after the war). That love for aircraft and their engines without any doubt formed part of his decision to enter the RAF’s ‘other ranks’ (i.e. as an enlisted person)...the erstwhile anonymous ‘Aircraftsman 2nd Class Ross’.
Lawrence’s death, tragic in itself, highlighted the need for motorcyclists to wear protective headgear (an otherwise survivable impact to the upper rear of his skull put him into a coma from which he never recovered) and it is certainly due (to no small part) to his untimely loss at the age of 46 that the movement to encourage cyclists to wear protective headgear gained strength in subsequent years (but one can’t also help but wonder to what extent aging reflexescontributed to his fatal accident). It is a known fact that despite the Brough Superior S100 being a state-of-the-motorcycling-art machine for its era, its braking capabilities were more than far outmatched by its tremendous power and performance, but it is also known to physiologists that even at the relatively young age of 50, human reflexes have already begun to decline significantly. Given today’s high operating speeds, enormously powerful engines and the substantially advanced performance of all motor vehicles on roadways, whatever fractional margin of safety that used to exist has now been reduced almost to zero when accidents occur between cars and motorcycles.
It is of more than anecdotal interest worth commenting upon that Lawrence was one of the principal architects of the post WWI redefinition of what today we variously call ‘the Middle East’ and ‘Southwest Asia’, although his sage and farsighted ambitions in that part of the world were largely frustrated by the joint post-war agreements formulated by England and France to divide the former Turkish territories up amongst themselves. It should be said also that had Lawrence had his way, the existing Palestine/Israeli stalemate (that shows no promise of EVER being resolved for the foreseeable future) might never have come to exist. In this, Lawrence’s brilliant resourcefulness marking all areas of his Arab involvement (as soldier, guerilla, diplomat, cultural expert, author, etc.) deserves to be referred to again and again as current political and religious circumstances in the Middle East continue to unravel. Regrettably, most Americans are totally oblivious of the historical setting that in those lands, both before and after the First World War, helped shape today’s insoluble dilemma involving traditional regional/tribal conflicts and Wahabbist-inspired radical Islam.
To this end, an excellent new book by author Michael Korda titled ‘HERO:THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA’ came out in 2010 that adds substantially not just to what we already know of Lawrence himself (as a highly complex and convoluted personality), but to a broader understanding of our contemporary involvement in the present quagmire that is Iraq, Afghanistan and the entire region. I highly recommend this book to any of you who wish to gain insight into why things are today as completely screwed-up as they can possibly be over there, for although there is already a wealth of reference material on Lawrence and his life in print, Korda’s recent assessment offers fresh and new insight into all of these pressing matters we are dealing with in Greater Arabia.
That said and returning to Lawrence’s love of fine motorcycling technology, I note that awareness of Lawrence’s ties to motorcycling finally seems to have hit the popular slick motorcycle press. A recent article (illustrated with imagesof Lawrence as ‘Aircraftsman Shaw’ on his last Brough) about Lawrence appeared in the latest issue of a certain classic motorcycling magazine. It served as a convenient tie-in to the fact that the famed 1930s Brough name has recently made a comeback in the form of a very limited and expensive modern technology expression of the classic Superior S100 machine. Although a reproduction of the last (mid-30s) Brough motorcycle, the machine incorporates modern technological features and enhancements whilst preserving the appearance of the original to a remarkable degree. Unfortunately, so exacting is the craftsmanship put into these modern replicas that only a few of these entirely hand-made bikes are completed each year andthe price is accordingly high (reported to be about US$ 200,000 each), so unless your name is John Travolta, Jerry Seinfeld or Jay Leno, the chances are good that you’ll never even see one up close and personal. One of these modern Brough replica machines was taken to the Bonneville Salt Flats (in Utah) last year and driven through a speed course that took it to slightly in excess of about 125mph! Considering that George Brough test-drove each of his 1930s machines to very near that mark before selling them to his customers, one can gain some glimmer of the exotic nature of Lawrence’s favorite motorised two-wheel machine and his great affection for their power and speed capabilities!
It’s undoubtedly helpful that the motorcycling public gain some greater and broader understanding of Lawrence’s personal ties to the great Brough Superior S100 motorcycle, but I am hopeful that it will further stimulate a few of the more astute among them to take a parallel look into the life T.E. Lawrence himself and thereby gainsome deeper insight into why America is so deeply (and irrevocably) involved in the unsolvably chaotic conflict that is the present day Middle East mess we continue to lose American lives in.
As some anonymous wit once observed: “Ride fast, but if you see God, slow down!”
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