On The Road, – 02
Joe thought it might be his imagination, but the Knucklehead seemed to be running better this morning than it was last night. Maybe he blew some of the carbon off the pistons. The steady drone of the engine was a pleasant sound, enough to put him to sleep. He was tired, the stack of hotcakes had siphoned his energy rather than giving him a second wind. Then he felt Harold’s hand on his shoulder.
“Yeah,” Joe shouted over his shoulder, turning his head slightly to shield his left ear from the wind.
“I need to take a crap,” shouted Harold.
“Okay, I’ll swing into the next station we come to,” said Joe, feeling a twinge of disappointment that already, a half-hour into the morning, they were already having to stop.
“Not later. I have to go NOW.”
Backing off the throttle, he let the bike slow and then swung onto the shoulder, bringing it to a halt adjacent to a stack of bailed alfalfa on the other side of a barbed wire. Joe held the bike steady while the sailor scrambled from his the sea bag.
“Here. You’ll need these.”
“Thanks,” said Harold, snatching the fistful of napkins Joe held out to him. Then he turned, hopped the barbed wire and scrambled behind the hay.
Joe killed the engine and then swung out the side-stand and then let the bike lay over. He thought, again, about his grandfather’s cautionary statement, retelling an experience of one of his nephews, Rutherford. Rutherford had farmed and raised cattle all of his life. Sometime during the mid-forties when he couldn’t hire a trucker, he put side racks on his hay truck and took a load of beef to the Kansas City Livestock Market. He stayed with them, as he always did to feed and water, until they sold. After cashing his check totaling nearly fifteen thousand plus dollars, he sealed the cash in an envelop, and shoved under the truck seat. It was late when he started the 70-mile trip home, and somewhere south of Kansas City he picked a hitchhiker. After 50-miles from home, the fellow pulled a revolver and demanded all his money. Rutherford had twelve dollars in his wallet. He gave it to the robber, and then watched him disappear into the night, grateful the robber didn’t know about the cash under the seat.
Joe thought about Harold. Harold was a hitchhiker. Who was this guy? Was he really a navy man trying to get home, or was he somebody else, a person waiting for the proper moment to steal his money and motorcycle? Maybe he should have his head examined for letting him climb on with him. He shuddered, recalling his grandfather’s words, ‘You can’t look at these guys and tell who he is. You do a fellow a good turn and then he might cut your guts out for fifty cents.’ he’d said. Getting rid of him would be easy. He could cut the twine holding his sea bag in place, crank the bike and ride away. Never look back.
Just then, Harold reappear from behind the hay and climbed the fence. As he drew closer Joe had second thoughts. The fact that his cousin Rutherford had met up with a thief had no bearing on this situation. This sailor claimed he was trying to get home after two years, and right now that seemed to be the truth. This long strip of asphalt called Route 50 had the reputation for being the most lonely highway in America. He couldn’t bring himself to make Harold experience that up close and personal. Not yet, anyway.
“Feel better?” he shouted.
Much! Very much. I almost didn’t make it.”
Joe started the bike, and after Harold was settled on his sea bag they continued their westward trek.
It was nearly noon when Joe exited the highway and parked near the front door of a small cafe, Margret’s Place. From the number of local vehicles the food had to be above average.
“How about my sea bag? You think it will be okay?” asked Harold as he climbed off and stretched.
“I’m sure it will. This is Kansas, not New Jersey. Besides, we’ll grab a table near a window where we can keep an eye on it,” said Joe.
Joe took the lead and pushed through the heavy glass door. The place was crowded, filled with smoke, people, and conversation. Nearly everyone appeared to be farmers, some wearing tattered straw hats while others donned dusty baseball caps. Some advertized seed corn companies, others fertilizer brands. There were no vacant tables.
“May we join you?” asked Joe, speaking to a heavyset farmer with a full beard, wearing a dusty John Deere cap, and occupied a window table.
“Of course! Name’s Bo,” he shouted in a voice that told Joe his hearing was a bit off. “Where you boys from,” he asked, his gray eyes roving from one to the other, a fork in one hand, a case knife in the other.
“I’m from Bates County, Missouri. Harold is from the USS Enterprise.”
“The Enterprise, eh. I’ve heard of her. A fine ship. An aircraft carrier? Am I correct?” Bo asked, his gaze settling on Harold’s navy uniform.
“That’s right, sir. She a carrier tied up at Newport New, New Jersey, getting some maintenance done.”
“What brings you out to the Kansas prairies, son?”
“Going home to Portland, Oregon, sir,”
“You needn’t sir me. I just an old wheat farmer who shook the dust off his shoes, and came to town to get a part for my wheat drill. While I was here I decided to get some vittles.”
“Yes sir, I mean yes.”
“And you,” said Bo, shifting his gaze to Joe, what brings you out here from Missouri?”
Joe told him about his uncle’s ranch in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, and his job there. The farmer nodded.
“Never been out in that country. I’ve read some of Louis L’Amour’s books. I’ve seen the Blues mentioned. You fellers headed out there on that motorcycle, are you?”
“Yes,” Joe said.
“I had me a motorcycle back when I was a youngster. An Indian, it was. I had a big time with it until one day I missed my trick. That dirty bastard throwed me through a barbed wire fence. That son of buck ripped me open like a side of beef,” he said yanking his right pant leg up to mid-thigh, exposing an angry scar that looked like it’d been stitch with a piece of rawhide. That sucker goes as far as my hip.”
“Are you showing off your legs again, Bo,” asked the waitress who had been waiting to get a word in.
“No, Ma’am, I was just telling a war story.”
She took their orders, and when she headed back to the kitchen Bo shouted across the dining room to a friend.
“Sam, these two fellers are riding a wheel all the way to Oregon.”
A motorcycle. Come take a look at it, will ya?”
Sam, a heavyset man, heavier than Bo, with wire-framed glasses and a few days of stubble, struggled from his chair and made his way to the window.
“Why, Hell. That’s an old Knucklehead. I had one of those, a 61-incher, back in 1947,” said Sam. “Where’d you get that beast?”
“Actually, a Knucklehead is a 61 cubic-inch engine. And that’s about all I know about it. I bought it from a guy in Kansas City. His son was killed in the Korean Conflict.”
“You mean the Korean War.”
“Yeah I suppose some folks call it that.”
“I know Harry called it a conflict, but in my book when 34,000 American kids lose their lives it’s gotta be a war. But that’s history, gone forever. You gonna ride all the way to Oregon on that Sea Bag?” he finally asked, turning his attention to Harold.
“Well, yeah, or as far as Joe will have me.”
Joe felt a wave of guilt, remembering how close he came to leaving him at the side of the road a couple of hours earlier.
Their meals came. Bo and Sam began talking farming problems, and then wandered outside for a closer look at the Knucklehead while Joe and Harold set in on their orders.
More To Come