My dad lied about his age to join the Navy in 1944. He was worried he wouldn’t get a chance to serve his country if he waited until he was of age. Landing a spot in the Seabee’s he participated in the clean-up of American interests in Nagasaki. His ship docked in Nagasaki shortly after Fat Man, the 22-kiloton atomic bomb, had been dropped at 11:02 on the morning of August 9, 1945. He never did talk much about what he saw there. I can’t imagine. When you witness the specific reality of such horrors it would affect you any number of ways. My Dad took some time to sort all that out in his own way I guess. Typical of some World War II Veterans my Dad found comfort in a Harley Davidson and the associated brotherhood that is now iconic Americana.
My dad was, however, willing to tell us stories about his motorcycling days and that is most likely why I ride to this day. He gave up motorcycling when he met my mom. He never told us why he made that decision but it was apparent he never lost his enthusiasm for two wheels. My dad was a practical man. I’m confident he subjugated his love for Harley’s in exchange for the priority of his family. Still, even in the later years of his of his life, whenever he heard the distinctive sound of a Harley, he would stop whatever he was doing and look for the source.
One of my father’s last rides was in late June of 1950. He decided to visit Yellowstone on a whim. He jumped on his 1949 FL pan-head and rode west. Alone. I asked him why and he smiled and just said, “I had always wanted to visit Yellowstone.” I suppose that’s as good of a reason as any. It was hard to reconcile such a free spirit once residing in a man who so epitomized living his life for others. He worked twelve hour days, six days a week at the gas station he owned. Busting his knuckles in the shop and wiping his hands on an oily rag he always had a smile on his face for any customer who pulled up to his full service pumps. His work ethic extended beyond providing for us. He was active at church, devoted to his family and did all of the maintenance on our humble cape cod.
On the occasions he recalled his trip to Yellowstone it seemed as if he was reliving the wind in his hair and rumble under his seat. He spoke proudly of his Harley which he claimed was the only motorcycle in the world that you could ride at eighty miles an hour all day long. My dad wouldn’t see Yellowstone on that trip. He would never see it from the seat of a Harley. He had stopped in Cody Wyoming to fuel up just outside the majestic park. The attendant asked, “Have you heard? North Korea has invaded South Korea and it sounds like we’re going back to war.” My dad told the man to fill it to the rim and hurry. He saddled up and headed for home. He had the opportunity to prove his bike would run eighty miles per hour all day long. It took him over twenty-four hours to ride straight through to the Naval recruiting station in his home town. Duty. Honor. Character.
Nearly fifty years later, some twenty years after my father had passed, I had the opportunity to trace his Yellowstone ride. I had just completed the glorious ride down Shell Canyon and was a little emotional from realizing this country had probably changed very little since my father had rode there. I had used most of my gas riding through the Big Horn Mountains. Cody lie ahead. I have to admit I watched nervously for anyone who might approach that would have some inconceivable news that might end my trip. God smiled upon me and I was able to spend the next few days with my dad filling my heart and taking in a timeless American treasure. I’d say my dad would have loved that ride through Yellowstone but I had the real sense that he was there all along, riding with me side by side.