Anybody can slide through public high school; my dad wanted to attend a Military Academy. Many years ago, somewhere after the advent of indoor plumbing but before man walked on the moon, my father enrolled at Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania. It was here that he would receive his formal secondary school education, as well as learn military history and tactics. He would also participate in a multitude of extra curricular activities – drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and learning to ride in the Motorcycle Squad.
The Valley Forge Military Academy Motorcycle Squad rode behemoth Harley 45s that were surplus army dispatch bikes left over from World War 2. The squad’s primary responsibility was escort detail in simulated convoy operations. Much to the annoyance of the Academy’s civilian neighbors, they would ride in front of the fleet of military vehicles in order to block local traffic at intersections until the convoy had safely passed. Once this task was performed each squad member would then have to catch back up to the convoy, pass it, and repeat the process over.
Lots of teenage boys learn how to ride a motorcycle, but not too many 16-year-olds are taught how to haul ass on the wrong side of the road in order to pass long lines of vehicles – then given permission to park in the middle of busy municipal intersections like they own the town. None of the squad wore helmets, presumably because their young egos were hyper inflated and it was impossible to find helmet sizes to accommodate their giant heads. Instead they wore garrison caps, which provided roughly the same amount of protection as a cheap toupee.
Speeding and brake checking cars was fun but the real excitement came on Sunday mornings. At 5AM the squad would assemble for off road excursions, heading out into the Pennsylvania countryside. Here they would scramble up hills, ride through creek crossings. and navigate muddy ground. No easy feat on an old Harley 45, which weighed approximately 45,000 pounds.
In case any of the Harleys became too broken and battered to make the return trip under their own power, a 3/4 ton weapons carrier served as a support vehicle. The inoperable bike would be transported back to the Motor Pool where it was then turned over for repair to one of the mechanically inclined Displaced Persons who worked at Valley Forge. Besides providing a precursor to the first Dual Sport bikes, it can also be argued that military and armed forces affiliated programs like this were the genesis for some of the modern amenities in off road racing – like chase vehicles and personal mechanics.
A quick side note about Displaced Persons at Valley Forge during this time period. During the late 40s and early 50s Europe was still in the process of rebuilding itself after the devastation of World War 2 and many Europeans had no home, neighborhood, or even city to return to. Some came to America in the hopes of gaining citizenship and constructing a new life for themselves. One of the requirements for obtaining citizenship was being employed and Valley Forge Military Academy became the employer of several Displaced Persons (or DPs).
Apparently one of these DPs was sweeping the room one day while my dad’s class was given a battle scenario on a sand table (a small scale model of an area) and charged with figuring out the best strategy for victory. With the instructor gone the cadets began fretting over their options. After a while, when it became clear none of the students quite knew what to do, the janitor wandered over and casually outlined a brilliant plan of attack – then went back to quietly sweeping the floor. As it turns out during the war he had been a Colonel in the German Army and commanded an entire division of Panzer Tanks.
Unfortunately, my dad’s love affair with motorcycles did not survive past his years at Valley Forge. One autumn day during convoy detail he was racing to catch back up to the fleet when he crested a hill and found an 18 wheeler truck jack-knifed at the bottom. Cruise ships come to a dead stop quicker than old Harleys and he ended up low siding on wet leaves and sliding underneath the truck and out the other side like a true Hollywood stuntman. The driver of the truck jumped out, his face ashen with shock, and asked my dad if he was injured. He wasn’t, but mentally he never recovered from this incident. In his mind the thrill of riding no longer out weighed the risk of personal injury – he was done with two wheel Motorsports. When he graduated Valley Forge he graduated to sports cars, eventually spending winter weekends ice racing on Lake Naomi.
I never learned to ride a motorcycle as a kid. The few times I asked my dad for a dirt bike were met with chuckle and a polite but firm NO. I swore when I had kids I’d let them ride as soon as they mastered a bicycle. Eventually I had two boys and was thrilled to bring home a PW50 for my eldest when he turned 5. Then I became absolutely terrified to let him ride it for the first time. My fears were quickly realized when, after a long and detailed tutorial, he rolled on the throttle for the first time and rode straight into a fence. What I had envisioned as a proud moment of father and son bonding quickly disintegrated into me forcing him to get back on the bike under protest and bawling his eyes out. It worked, he quickly got over his fear – but I felt like a bad parent. Luckily I’ll get another shot with my youngest who can’t wait to ride big brother’s bike. Little brother’s demeanor is more Kamikaze than his cautious older sibling, so I’m thinking this initial test flight might go better. Unless it goes worse.
No, my dad never taught me how to ride a motorcycle. But this Father’s Day I’d like to thank him for giving me some life skills that helped me become a better off road rider – like the self confidence to face challenges head on, the humility to gain insight from others who had been there before me, the wisdom to recognize and respect my limitations, and the courage and persistence to try to redefine them. All this combined with a hereditary determination that keeps me climbing back on the bike, even after I crash and burn. Thanks Dad, you helped me learn to ride after all.
(Oh, and thanks for all those cool four letter words you taught me during our father/son projects – they’ve come in handy while trying to kick start a flooded four stroke!)