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Young Sailor on a new XLCH Sportster

By K. Randall Ball

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This isn't me or Laurie, but fits the era.
This isn't me or Laurie, but fits the era.

She called. Her voice was like the petal of a rose on a violin string, so soft and tender. It always touched my heart. I was just 120 miles away in the San Diego Naval shipyard aboard the USS Saint Paul, a heavy cruiser.

We recently returned from a seven-month tour off the coast of Vietnam, as the first fleet flagship, my first active duty station. I met her on a blind date with my brother the last time I was home in Long Beach. I was just 19, wet behind the ears still and riding my second motorcycle, a brand new 1969 XLCH, kick-only magneto-fired 900 cc hot rod with a 2.2 gallon Sporty tank.

Laurie was pure goodness and light. I was the stark opposite. I was about to roll down a long dark foreboding road of treachery and romance. From the first time I met her, a deep chemical attraction formed and I was lost in lust. I met her at her most sensual ebb. She was an overweight teenager, who trimmed as she hit her late teens and her breasts blossomed like giant succulent flowers framed in neon.

It makes my fingers tingle just to think of her touch even 40 years later. She was all heart and soul. There wasn’t an evil cell in her body, and she practiced her efforts to be pure through her religion as a born-again Christian. It was the only subject of discussion where we differed, and I challenged her beliefs. I didn’t get it, and she cried for fear I could never be admitted to heaven along side her. She had a strict belief. If I didn’t carry a membership card to her church, I was headed straight to hell, no matter how Christian my lifestyle or mantra. If I couldn’t get admitted into heaven, I might as well build a respectable resume in hell.

But I didn’t slip just yet. Sure, I smoked some weed in the control house in the back of the first 8-inch gun turret with a handful of other hippies, while listening to Inagodavida on a 78 album while the needle jumped when another turret fired at the Tonkin Gulf coast. I wasn’t all-bad just yet, and being madly in love with my curvaceous girl in Long Beach kept me sorta out of harm’s way.

When she called, if I could escape 15 minutes early, scramble across the base, out the gate, and across the highway, where they allowed us to park motorcycles (motorcycles weren’t allowed on the base), I’d make a run to Long Beach, just to be at her side and near those fleshy footballs for just a four-hour stint, until I was forced to straddle the XLCH, kick her to life and roll back to Dago at midnight for duty the next morning.

This particular night, I left her warmth and tenderness like a melting stick of butter. I didn’t have time to suit up with additional motorcycle attire. The base rules called for being in uniform upon entering the gates. That meant I had to leave the base, find a stash for civilian clothes, change, and return to suit up before entering the base again, or wear my gabardine blues and ride.

She called; I escaped a half-hour early and cut a dusty trail for Long Beach, up the 5 freeway, like a bat outta hell on a warm lingering summer afternoon, wearing only light blues and a light tan jacket. I flew north on the 405, slipped up beside her and cupped one of the monstrous orbs like I was holding a golden challis from King Tut’s tomb. It was as if I was a drug addict cupping two handfuls for pure cocaine. I was in heaven. There’s that religious thing again.

There was nothing in the world like being next to her, kissing, touching and making love. I found pure nirvana on earth, but then it’s over and cold reality must surface once more.

Tingling with the afterglow of pure sensual delight, I pushed my coffee brown metallic XLCH into the street so as not to disturb her neighbors. I was still a warm soft melting patty of butter, fresh from a smoldering stack of hotcakes. I was sexually spent, and glowing with the warmth of her silky soft flesh all over me, and then chilly reality returned as I kicked the XLCH, over and over.

I didn’t understand Tillotsen carbs, and the handy aspect of accelerator pumps. I’ll bet I flooded it every time twisted the throttle, and kicked it, under the shadow of a massive pepper tree in the coastal pale moonlight. By the time she started, I pulled off every stick of warm clothing and the Navy mandatory bell helmet.

A neighbor tapped on their picture window glass to catch my noisy attention. I pushed the Ironhead a few doors down and started the process again. Finally, the motorcycle was warm enough to overcome the overabundance of fuel in combustion chambers and it fired to life. I quickly dressed, straddled the beast before anymore porch lights snapped on at 1:00 in the morning. I quickly dressed and peeled for the freeway.

In 1969, there was very little traffic on the 405 south of Los Angeles, all the way to San Diego, even in rush hour. But late at night, it was a desolate ribbon of asphalt and concrete for 120 miles. It was cold for a fall California night as my hardened Firestone tires slipped on the moist on-ramp. Tire compounds were nothing like they are today, and didn’t contain water deflecting tread patterns. Slip and go down was a regular occurrence in sand, oil, wet, or damp, gravel, or a pile of dried leaves on a corner.

As I straightened I came face to face with the first evidence of a fog bank as the overhead freeway lamps were surrounded with a soft pillowy mist. As I picked up speed and passed less frequent over-passes. As I cleared Long Beach and rolled into Orange County, the moist mist thickened like an army of ghosts escaping the ocean depths and heading north for the hills.

I could distinguish shapes in the caravan of wispy apparitions. My belief in supernatural didn’t extent to phantom armies, so the thickening mist didn’t intimidate me as it became denser. I remembered coming to an intersection in my first car, a 1946 Nash. It was full of high schoolers in February on a date night and we rumbled to a stop in the left-hand turn land at the corner of 2nd street and Pacific Coast Highway on a soup-thick foggy February night. I could see the signal light directly above me, but nothing else.

Suddenly, from the dense stratus cloud of moisture we heard the wail of tires screeching and the crunching sounds of a collision, then the screams of a woman, yet we couldn’t see a thing.
I thought of that night as the liquid water droplets intensified until I was soaked and consumed by the low-lying coastal cloud. The shield on the Bell helmet made matters worse and I tore it free from its snaps and stuffed it into my jacket so at least I could see the broken white line 15 feet in front of my front tire. The ghost train took over the freeway and consumed it. I could see nothing except the glow of a light overhead and the white line directly in front of my wheel. I kept rolling, cognizant of the fact that a following truck or motorist would probably run over me before they would have a split second to react, but I kept going. Duty called and the warmth of her love wrapped me in a cloak of spiritual protection. Nothing could touch me, as long as her heart was beating for me.

I wasn’t thinking of her during those long moments on the wide-open freeway. I focused every mental cell on refining my vision in the dense fog. I couldn’t see shit and the cloud of moisture soaked me to the bone. Still, I couldn’t think about the cold or how wet I was becoming. It was all about vision and the lack of it disturbing me. Suddenly I was startled by an additional light, the glow of the headlights on a passing vehicle, then the faded aura of taillights. I quickly had a mission to place the dim red orbs just within reach of my eyes, not too close, but not out of sight. I moderated my speed to hold that position.

I noticed my hands locked on the wet handlebar grips, and my arms were rigid in their intensity to keep the XLCH on track. Frozen in position, I held fast to my treacherous position and pondered a quote from Treasure Island. “I’m becalmed in a sea of treachery and need a pot of rum to fill my sails.”
This is very close to my '69 XLCH. I changed the seat and the pipes to shorty dual mufflers.
This is very close to my '69 XLCH. I changed the seat and the pipes to shorty dual mufflers.

 A pot of rum, or better yet to be nestled in her arms once more, my chest against those heavenly mounds, and those lips, and that loving smile beaming all the warm in the world into my soul…Good god! What the hell was I doing on a freeway, freezing my ass off in the middle of the night?

Then something even more treacherous engulfed me. I started to fall asleep. I never encountered this daunting phenomenon before in my life, even at the wheel, but my tugging concentration on the soft glow of two red taillights took its toll on my ability to stay alert in the center of a dense fog bank. I could feel my concentration slipping, the strain in my arms and grip give way as the ghost of slumber engulfed me. I was fading and less than halfway down the coast toward the Naval shipyard in Dago.

I blinked, tried to shift my gaze, shifted my ass against the chilly seat and licked the moisture accumulating in my mustache. As soon as my focus on the bouncing red dots in the distance resurfaced I started to fade again. I slapped myself with my wet clutch gloved hand and my focus brightened for a minute before the evil blanket of fatigue warmed my soul. I no longer felt the bitter wet cold. I was falling asleep at 75 mph on a wet freeway, swallowed up in pea soup.

I didn’t know how fast I was going, whether my left hand had retarded the magneto spark, or if a following careening vehicle bore down on me like a ghost ship in the night. I didn’t care. I was rapidly losing consciousness. My eyelids were as heavy as the steel portholes on the ship. I faltered under the strain to keep them open. I was beginning to give into satin slumber, and then the driver in front of me hit his brakes.

I don’t even know if he actually applied his brakes or not. Maybe it was a mental apparition. Maybe my Long Beach angel said a prayer and made a life saving connection with the spirit of the wheel. That flash of red ignited every disconnected nerve cell infused body. I sat bolt upright and instinctively reached for my front brake, the rear brake, and my eyes bolted wide open. The mental checklist flew into general quarters, red alerts, and the mission impossible mode.

Suddenly I was as wide-awake as a newborn. Every fiber in my limbs came alive. If I slammed on the brakes, I could slip and smack the pavement in a split second, in a dense pea soup fog. Not a pleasant thought. If I slammed into the back of this illusive vehicle represented by just two glowing crimson spheres in the din—well, that couldn’t happen. And if I attempted a quick maneuver around my guiding lights in a soupy night, I would head off into never-never land as blind as minnow trying to swim through an oil spill. At almost 3:00 in the morning in the center of this dense fog bank I was compelled to handle every maneuver delicately, and as graceful as the bow over a violin, plucking precisely for the perfect notes, or die trying.

I compressed my front, drum brake lever tactfully and stared down those fuzzy taillights. We’re they in brake mode anymore or not? The red glows seemed to keep their distance. Maybe the driver was falling asleep and caught himself. Still on full alert, I stared into the murky air born cloud of moisture looking for a sign of anything, hoping for a comforting clue in the sinister night.

Then I grabbed the throttle and flicked it just enough to pass the sonuvabitch, soup-thick fog or not. Ten miles running south in the dense fog and the freeway elevated just enough to break the dreary moist spell and vision returned, to be replaced by a wet cold as if the air-conditioner was turned on max.

A light offshore breeze cut through my wet garments and worked its chilling magic. All the moisture collected from riding through the thick cloud turned to an icy chill. Suddenly I could see signs for Oceanside. I survived passing through the Marine Base at Camp Pendleton. I dipped into another valley next to a sea level lagoon at Solana Beach, and the fog hit me again, as if I rode through a can of chilled gray paint.

By now, I was pissed. I held the throttle at 60 mph and stared at the blinking white line just a few feet in front of my front tire. As I rolled south just 20 miles out of San Diego the freeway elevated out of the fog, the temperature dropped and my moisture laden clothing became a swamp cooler on high. I kicked up the speed as my vision cleared and hunkered down for the final portion of the run.

I wasn’t dressed for the cold. Everything I wore was porous and wet, and I didn’t realize how the cold permeated my body. My leather gloves were soaked and my fingers ached as I rolled into Dago and looked for a place to dry out and warm up. For servicemen, there was one safe have outside most any base, locker clubs. Guys needed a place to stash their uniforms and lock up civilian clothes. Usually, these dumps housed shower rooms and were set up like school locker rooms. I found one a couple of blocks from the base, climbed off the XLCH and scrambled inside.

The locker club had a single tall natural gas heater nailed to the wall. I pulled a wooden bench close and sat as close to the warm steel louvered grates and began to shiver like an out-of-balance wheel. I was chilled to the bone. It didn’t matter how I turned, adjusted my frame, or leaned against the wall adjacent to the heater. I was tired and cold. I suppose I dried out some, but I was growing hungry and impatient. I decided to look for some grub before heading to the base.

I found a coffee shop and searched out the warmest corner booth. I paid no attention the waitress, but quickly ordered a cup of coffee and pigs in a blanket, natch. A couple of over easy eggs and a short stack of hotcakes came steaming to my table. Damn, they looked good, but when I attempted to eat them I shook so bad, my fork rattled against the plate. I gulped down the coffee, ate half the breakfast and shook like a leaf as I paid the amused waitress.
This Sporty has the pipes I ran, but I'll bet this was a '68.
This Sporty has the pipes I ran, but I'll bet this was a '68.

 As I stepped outside, a sliver of sun crested the mountains to the east. The icy spell was finally broken and I could return to the living. If only I could escape base early, and jam back north to her silky side once more.

Note: This is a tribute to my first wife, Laurie. She is currently fighting a number of cancers, and may not make it. She devoted her life to goodness, her broken family, and God. Yet, she still got her ass kicked. Her only wish is for me and her family to be one with God, so she can be confident in our arrival in Heaven someday.  

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Reader Comments

A moving tale - I remember leaving work like a bat out of hell on Fridays on my Sporty to spend the weekends in bed with my first wife, staying at the little stone gothic house she lived in. Long time ago now.

Paul Harris
Abingdon, OX, United Kingdom
Sunday, February 2, 2020
Editor Response I had a similar experience in the '60s with my first wife.
Great story. Cinderella Liberty

hoopeston, Illlinois
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Editor Response When Cinderella called, I rode.
Great story! One of your best. Very moving tribute. Best wishes to Laurie.

Doc Robinson
Somerton Park, South Australia, Australia
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Editor Response Thanks Doc.

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