My steps echoed down the dim hall which led to the designated room. A tripod with a posterboard read: Motorcycle Safety Instruction Class. Inside, round tables had been arranged for the participants. Ten guys were already there. All wearing do-rags. Some to cover their gray hair, some to cover their baldness, with designs from shooting flames to the Confederate flag on them. I could hear snippets of conversation, “Deadwood” and “Sturgis” echoing in the air.
The first thing I smelled and heard was leather. The tight scrunch as conversation ground to a halt while Aunt Bea entered the room. They looked at me like I was surely the donut delivery gal, but the instructor, looked up and called me by name--my first clue that I might be the only estrogen in the room.
Let me say, in my defense, that I nearly ran right then and there. I had an intuitive flash, probably similar to those felt by people right before they’re run over by a tank. A few more guys came in and it became official. Aunt Bea had just crashed a meeting of the Sons of Anarchy.
The conversation quickly built back to a witty repartee. Get acquainted sorts of questions, like “When do you lay down your bike?” My answer--Never. I don’t want it scratched even worse--was not offered up by a single soul. Then I got it. They were talking about avoiding decapitation by sliding your bike under careening trucks during thunderstorms. When somebody began to expound on the joys of hydroplaning on the interstate, I felt my stomach clutch.
I wasn’t even on a real motorcycle, but a Genuine Buddy 125 Scooter, very similar to a Vespa, and had been riding illegally for a year--long overdue to get a motorcycle endorsement on my drivers license. I quickly discovered my only uniqueness (other than gender) in this class of unlicensed compadres: I could read aloud without pausing between words. We took turns reading the basics I had already memorized from my Buddy Handbook and the official State Motorcycle Safety Manual. Interestingly, some of the guys who’d sojourned to South Dakota through rain and sleet didn’t know the five steps in checking your bike before you got on, things I had committed to memory. But I suspected this was no time to brag.
Before the break between the writing and driving tests, the Viking God arrived, like a walking redwood tree. His brown sheep’s-wool-lined jacket and pants added even more bulk to his 6'4" presence. Under his black-slitted eyes was the pock-marked scowl of an ancient warrior about to pillage a village. His arms were abnormally long. I imagined him riding his hog, knuckles dragging the highway. And dirty blond hair braided down the back to his waist. If he’d been wearing one of those operatic bronze helmets with horns, he would have looked perfectly at home at the bow of a Viking ship, setting sail to slaughter new worlds.
Driving to the driving strip in back of the building was my first participation in a motorcycle parade. Our bikes sparked to life with the force of an exploding hydrogen bomb and we drove to an asphalt track which immediately made me think of a desolate Mexican airstrip. If two rows of orange cones hadn’t dotted the surface, I would have sworn it was a runway for drug traffic. But I quickly discovered the traffic cones marked our first maneuver. Apparently, we were to weave in and out of the cones. Looking down one row of bright markers, I thought, “It’ll be tight, but you’ll do fine.”
We all listened to the Viking’s foghorn instructions, which were impossible to hear over the snarling motors revving up again. Observing the first rider, however, I became dreadfully enlightened. Weaving back and forth down the single row of cones was barely half the fun. Actually, we were to weave back and forth between Row 1 and Row 2, making a figure eight, an extremely tight one. Quickly counting the cones, I determined that I would have to execute a total of--wait for it–20 hairpin curlicue turns. Something acidic exploded in my stomach. And way down there just beyond the last cones, Viking King stood, hands on hips, his breath assaulting the cold morning air like steam blasting off a train.
So long doomsday story short, let’s put it this way. If we’d been bowling, I would have won. No cone was left in its original place, and many had been taken out completely. By the time I got to Viking King, I was just grateful I still had the bike under me, and not dragging one of the hateful orange doo-hickeys alongside.
Speechless, mouth hanging open, he motioned me close, so I could smell his sausage breath. “You’ve never ridden before at all, have you?”
A squeaky voice I didn’t recognize surfaced. “Yes I have.”
He snarled. “Oh come on. You don’t have any experience, do you?” He made it sound like I’d sneaked into a cock fight without paying.
“As much as the online ad said I needed. I’ve got 500 miles.”
He smirked, folded his arms and pointedly looked behind me. I turned to observe the wrecked obstacle course.“Well,” I pointed out, deciding to defend myself with a touch of humor, “I didn’t realize we were in training for the Shriner Circus.”
Now maybe he was a Shriner, I don’t know. But I can say he did not like the reference, nor any challenge whatsoever to his authority. “I can see already, you’re going to make it a long day.” His eyes promised pain. “I don’t like long days.”
I sucked my pride up off the asphalt and humbly asked, “Can I give it another go, Sir?”
He actually grinned. Apparently, this was closer to the lowly sucking-up he liked. “Sure,” he said, expansively spreading his arms. “Go to the back of the line and try again.” Luckily for me, I was not the only disaster. Several of the guys who hadn’t ridden for years knocked over cones, and one went over on his bike. They were also shamed and given their comeuppance.
Then, a moment of sheer magic. I actually made it through the maneuver the second time without crashing a single cone. I drove up to him, barely suppressing a victory cry. “Was that okay?” I asked with a proud grin.
He shook his head at me, as though I’d not only fallen off the watermelon truck, but it had also run over me. “Sure, if your foot was allowed to touch the ground when you turn.”
“Oh. I can’t do that?”
He put his hands on his hips. “It’s just going to get harder and faster. You get me?”
“But I paid my money already. . ..” It was lame, but true. I was getting the idea loud and clear that I was out of my league, but figured I should at least be able to try to do what they were expecting. Maybe there would be a low grading curve. “I want to at least try.”
He dropped his head sadly, as if I had just volunteered for a lobotomy.
“Alrighty. Moving on to the next maneuver.”
Actually, this part looked like fun. It was a “go slow, then go fast” kind of test around large curving lanes on the runway. What, I quickly discovered, they failed to allow for, or give a crap about, is that scooters can’t be downshifted. You simply accelerate or brake. This exercise illustrated that motorcycles can be controlled by shifting from high gear to low. On a scooter, there is zero finesse in this area. You can stop on a dime, but under 10 mph you’re in danger of tipping over. So there goes the foot on the ground. Again.
Red-faced, he motioned me back over. He looked like a man who needed his midday allotment of raw meat. “Harder and faster. Did you not hear that? Even harder and even faster after this.” I decided it might not be the best time to bring up the gearshift differences between motorcycle to scooter. Then he delivered the coup de grace. “You know, I’ve had to call ambulances out here. People have been hurt that bad.”
Since it wasn’t clear if he meant bike accidents, or if he had actually lifted students over his head and thrown them onto the tarmac, I resisted comment. Then I remembered something creepy from grade school history. Vikings beheaded their enemies. My mental red danger flag popped up before my eyes and started shouting. From that point on, I was paralyzed by panic. My quick descent into unobliterated shame would only be funny to sadists who like to listen to actual recorded tapes of 911 calls.
Sent home in disgrace, with frozen fingers, I could only stare at my beautiful honey-colored scooter for the next few months and tear up remembering my utter, complete, ignominious failure. I was doomed. So, several months later, just as I was pondering whether to ride illegally or sell my beloved Buddy, I was stunned when the universe took charge of my situation. A friend introduced me to the educational programs of the Rider Down Foundation and enrolled me in their motorcycle safety class. I was grateful but told myself to be prepared for another round of humiliation.
Imagine my shock on arrival to discover two of their instructors were women. More than half the class were female, too. A lot of them had ridden behind their partners forever and were apparently ready for those hogs to rumble between their own legs. Had I stepped into an alternate universe? The teachers actually encouraged you, coached you, gently guided you through the dreaded curlicues. Shouts of “You can do it!” filled the air.
Yes, you guessed it. I now ride legally. Got that big “M” on my license. I can stop and go, do figure eights, and turn circles in a box. By day’s end, I felt like Cleopatra riding her barge down the Nile. All of us couldn’t have been more proud than if we’d been crowned Miss Harley Hogs of America.
Most of my fellow students had their guys watching the entire event from the sidelines, mingling around their own bikes. It was, and surely will remain, the only time I have been cheered and whistled at by an audience of bikers in black leather jackets as I rode triumphantly off the training tarmac. I wanted to cry. Vengeance and joy were mine. Who needs the Viking beheader when you’ve got dozens of clapping Marlon Brando’s out of The Wild One?
Now I must admit, I’m starting to feel the urge for change. Now that I’m all legal, I’m considering a different look from my drab driving gear. Something a little more uptown perhaps. Anybody know where to locate a candy-apple-red leather riding jacket in a plus size?
Note: The Downed Rider Foundation is an outstanding nonprofit organization which supports injured riders and their families through money and personal support. I feel eternally grateful to them for their upbeat style of instruction and making this one of the greatest experiences I ever had.