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Southern Rail: Howdy again, stranger

By Robert Filla

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I don’t remember Jay Bird when I was growing up, although I believe we graduated from the same high school, him one year ahead of me. As soon as I discovered motorcycles and fell in love with the vagabond life, I discarded my hometown and constantly bounced around the Southwest. Jay Bird apparently discovered motorcycles about the same time I did, but was completely content to remain in one place, building a home and family around a solid work ethic. But we did bump into one another on occasion and since we shared a bunch of mutual friends, it was always a friendly, if somewhat abbreviated, encounter. We always seemed to be headed in different directions.

After relocating to Houston, I ran into him and his wife at a swap meet in Pasadena. He’d come up with some friends to rummage through boxes of greasy junk looking for some can’t-live-without-it part and had brought his truck just in case he scored something major. We talked for a few minutes, him bringing me up to speed on the gossip from home. And then, we parted ways again, without even taking time to share a beer. Later that night while headed back to the Gulf Coast, with one of his friends at the wheel of his truck, his wife in the front seat and him in the back, the driver nodded off, crossed the center stripe and was the cause of a head-on collision. Jay Bird’s wife was gone. Jay Bird took it hard, I heard. But I really didn’t know how hard since we weren’t that close. I didn’t even go to the funeral.

Years would roll by and his name would come up in a conversation here and there. Seemed like he rode more than ever since he lost his ol’ lady. Maybe he was trying to fill a hole in his heart. But then, I wouldn’t know.

Two years ago, I was headed back south to Texas from South Dakota when a huge thunderstorm started rolling in from the Rockies. I took shelter in the first motel I could find in Colorado Springs, barely beating the torrential downpour that followed on my heels. Three bikes rolled in shortly after me with drenched riders seeking similar refuge. Later, after the storm let up, I took off for a beer and a steak and noticed the three bikes parked about five doors down from me. They were all sporting Texas plates. But then, that wasn’t too unusual—lots of Texans attend Sturgis every year. The next morning I passed by their door again on my way to the motel office for coffee. I nodded at one of the riders and said, “Texas, eh? Where ‘bouts?”

From somewhere back inside the room I heard a gruff voice reply, “Ah just a little piss-ant of a town on the coast you probably never heard of before.”

Being proud of knowing damn near every inch of Texas I said, “Try me.”

The man behind the voice stepped outside and answered, “Port O’Connor, Texas.”

I squinted hard trying to focus on the face and then questioned, “Jay Bird? That you?”

Well, of course it was. A thousand miles from home and I run into someone I almost knew. We bullshitted for a few minutes until it was time for me to roll—deadlines and commitments dictating my schedule. They passed me later that morning near Raton Pass crossing the New Mexico border. It felt good when they all waved and gave me a thumbs up.

And then it was like no matter where I rode, Jay Bird was either already there, had just left or would arrive shortly. I ride a lot. But this guy was either my equal or better when it came to putting down miles. Earlier this year I found him sitting at a picnic table outside the South Texas Motorcycle Museum in Edinburgh. I’d come down to cover the museum’s open house fundraising party. Jay Bird had come to down to drink a few beers with friends. And damn if everyone there wasn’t his friend. A week later, he showed up all wind-blown and weathered at the Hill Country Holler run in Boerne outside of San Antonio. We spoke briefly, but I was on assignment and he needed to check on his poker run hand. I never saw him again that weekend.

Last month my good friend Gustavo came up to Houston from the Valley to visit his daughter. He came by the house and, over several rounds of icy Lone Star, regaled my family with tales of his many antics. And then he took me aside and in a hushed tone asked if I’d heard about Jay Bird. Seems he was at home and had slipped into a diabetic coma. Since he was on the road so much, no one even missed him for two days. At present he’s in a rehab center, hooked up to all kinds of monitors and equipment while doctors stand around scrutinizing charts and graphs hoping he wakes up. They say it’s all up to him. So I’m planning a trip down to see him; take the time to visit that I never took the time to do before. But first I need to check around and find out what his real name is so I know who to ask for when I arrive. We were never that close.

 

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