Thursday, October 5, 2006

Harley, But Not Davidson

A few years ago, probably about the time I turned 40, I remember a group of people who seemed of similar age roaring into the trading post parking lot on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Although I had never really been taken by that particular mode of transportation, I began wondering how it would be to tour the country on one.

Steve & Harley at Twin Rocks Trading Post
Steve & Harley @ Twin Rocks Trading post

When Jana arrived at the store a few hours later, I said, “Hey, I’m thinking about getting a Harley . . . and a tattoo.” Although I anticipated biting commentary about mid-life crises, trading her in for two 20s and budgetary constraints, I was fully unprepared for her response. “Okay,” she calmly said, “but you better get two, because I’m not riding behind you.” I have never again concerned myself with motorcycles, tattoos or 20 year olds.

There is, however, a Harley that has meant a great deal to me. It has been a long time since Harley and I first met, and the facts of our initial encounter are a little fuzzy in my mind, but, to paraphrase Collin Raye, this is my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

It must have been the summer of 1990 when I first spied the cream colored Ford Mustang slowly creeping around town. The car was not one that had been renovated, restored or reconditioned; it was original, right down to the missing hubcaps and dented fenders. Being a child of the sixties and seventies, that type of thing was sure to capture my attention, although the condition of the aging pony did not hold it long enough for me to notice the old codger at the wheel.

It was another year or so before I noticed the car turning into the driveway of the trading post. A spirited man, who looked to be in his early seventies, pushed open the driver’s side door and came trudging up the stairs. He was dressed in a worn yellow button front shirt, cut-off blue jeans with strings hanging down and black Chuck Taylor Hi Top sneakers. His hair was casually combed to one side and his beard unshaven. All in all, he looked like a vagabond.

Did I know a local acquaintance of his, the gentleman inquired shortly after entering the store. “Yes,” I assured him, “I have known him since I was a kid.” “Okay,” he said and, after looking about for a short time, abruptly turned and walked out. As he left, I could not help wondering if he already knew of my tortured relationship with the patron saint of Bluff, and whether his inquiry was really an inquisition.

As it turned out, that is exactly what it was, but I would have to wait another year to discover the truth. The following summer, Harley’s battered Mustang once again rolled into the lot. Once again, he crawled out wearing the same worn yellow shirt, cut-offs and Chuck Taylors. Once again, his hair was mussed and his beard unkempt.

He was a retired lawyer from San Francisco and had been coming to Bluff for a month every summer since I was still in short pants, he informed me. The acquaintance he had asked about the previous year was his friend, and Harley knew all about the small town intrigues that were involved. I think the politics of this little village fascinated him, and my role in it was under investigation.

As we began to explore each other, I learned that he had purchased his Mustang in 1964, the first year they became available, and had driven the same car ever since. Harley and that old car had gone down many roads together. He was widely known and respected for his work in estate planning and he was well versed and extremely interested in world religions.

He was cranky and crotchety, but I loved it; probably because I fear that is my destiny and hope someone will spend a little time with me when I am his age and have developed his disposition. He and Barry struggled to find common ground. Initially, Barry could not endure his critical comments, and Harley was often critical. He was more often congenial, polite, warm and well-mannered.

The first few years his visits lasted only an hour or so, and he would putter off to his other adventures, leaving me to ponder what he was really seeking. Year after year the discussions lengthened, until he began to arrive at 9:00 a.m. and leave promptly at 5:00 p.m.; “Cocktails,” he explained.

Hour after hour, day after day, he sat outside my office in a wooden chair made from two by four lumber. When I had a legal or grammatical question, and I had many, he always answered it clearly and concisely. At noon I would walk to the cafe, order two grilled cheese sandwiches and two iced teas and we would convene a picnic on the outside porch. The schedule and the menu rarely varied. Consistency was important to Harley.

I became accustomed to having him at my side for a month each year, he and Barry found common ground and we all learned to love him. He was ours; as odd and oddly independent as any of the rest of us. We claimed him as our own, and he became part of the trading post family.

We all wondered how such a bright, progressive man was able to survive a full month in the same clothes, and how he avoided becoming odorous; which he never was. I began to anticipate his annual visits and plan my schedule so I could spend time with him. I took him to Albuquerque with me during my brief stint as counsel of record in the ill-fated Native American tobacco litigation.

On our way back from New Mexico, I asked him to drive and he refused. I asked him a second time, advising him that I was extremely tired and that we might wind up in the ditch if he didn’t. He was steadfast. “No,” he said, “and don’t ask me again.”

Then he stopped coming. After two years, I received a call from his daughter, “frontal lobe dementia,” she pronounced it. “Has had it for years. It manifests itself in a cranky disposition, uncertain hygiene and an inability to process new experiences.” She said he could navigate the complexities of the trip from San Francisco to Bluff because he had done so for years, but driving down the block to a new market was impossible. Incredible, we thought, realizing that the eccentricities brought about by his illness were what irrevocably bound us to him.

Earlier this year Harley returned for a few days. This time however, he was in a motor home and confined to a wheel chair. As he crooked his finger at me and asked questions about the months we had spent together, the art of the trading and the people who buy and sell it, I was filled with affection for him. Isn’t it crazy that frontal lobe dementia has given us such an unforgettable gift?

With warm regards,
Steve, Barry & the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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