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Southern Rail: Kneeling to old age

By Robert Filla

When I purchased my first Big Twin in 1972 (a ’67 Electra Glide), it came with a novelty I was unaccustomed to—an electric starter. But since 1967 was only the third year for such new-fangled gadgetry, Harley considered it fraught with the possibility of failure and wisely retained a kicker pedal, just in case. Trusting what had worked successfully during my early years of biking, I continued to rely on my right leg, seldom using the ’lectric foot, punching the button maybe once a month just to make certain it still worked. (I admit to watching way too many of those B-grade biker flicks during my malleable teenage years and was thoroughly convinced that kickstarting a bike was not only manly, but sexy as hell to the ladies.) Two years later, while refurbishing a blown motor, I determined the starter totally unnecessary and left the assembly out of the rebuild. During the following 38 years, it has remained a kick-only motorcycle with a shelf full of kick pedals, kicker arms, kicker shafts and bushings as a reminder of my commitment to being sexy—along with a right leg that dwarfs my left, also sexy. But as they say, gettin’ old ain’t for wussies.

At one time in Harley history, kickers were common, so much so that we actually incorporated the mechanics of kickstarting into contests at parties (before the advent of a motorcycle rally held every weekend we just had parties). The first such competition I ever encountered was held at the local Harley dealer’s country home. Tagged the Boot Race, the rules were simple. All contestants remove right boot, foolish contestants entrust said footwear with character of dubious nature, line bikes up along starting line, dubious character tosses leather apparel into air, simpletons scramble to find correct boot, insert appendage, hobble to motorcycle, kick start and race across finish line. Simple, except the bastard with all the boots ran to the nearest barbed wire fence and threw them all over and into a patch of prickly pear cactus. Funny guy.

And then there was the Kickstart Contest. Once again a simple, if somewhat tiring, game. You have one chance to kick your machine to life. You miss and the bike doesn’t start clean, you are out of the running. If it starts, great. But hold on; you get to do it again. And again and again until there is only one man left standing—and panting. I’ve seen such battles end in short order; less than 10 attempts and a clear winner emerges. And then, I’ve seen it take the better part of an hour to settle the tournament. Since my old ’67 had been my only means of transport for huge stretches of time, I will admit to being quite skilled at this particular test of skill and endurance. My best competition came in the form of an elderly gentleman who appeared to be twice the age of his ancient Knucklehead. But damn if he didn’t know his machine as well as I knew mine. In the end, I prevailed, lashing the $5 trophy to my handlebars a la Marlon Brandon in The Wild Ones, style. Thirty years later it still has a place of honor in my shop with the number 75 carved into the wooden base. That’s how many times in a row I started the ’67 with one kick. Seems the only way I could best the Knuckle owner was to push him to the brink of a heart attack. And it certainly took more than one beer to accomplish the feat.

But the times they are a’changin’.

An injury that occurred back in June was recently compounded when, in a mad dash to get the Shovel started, I tore something in my right knee. After a thorough examination, my personal sawbones came to the conclusion that I had ripped my meniscus, the cartilage under my kneecap. And that strange popping sound that accompanies the tremendous pain? Well, that’s the torn flap of tissue squishing out of the way when you flex your knee joint there, son. Lovely.

Bones wants surgery. So I’m acting my age, being responsible and doing the sensible thing; totally ignoring Bones and seeking alternative physical therapy along with the most powerful glucosamine supplement I can find. And eight weeks into recovery, it seems to be working. The joint is much stronger and the pain has lessened, tolerable to the point I no longer need to wear a brace 24/7. In the interim the Shovel is on a lift in the shop and I’m taking the opportunity to finish off a set of custom saddlebags and completely remodel the contour of the seat, adding some long-overdue cush where needed. As far as dumping the kicker and opting for a mess of swirling gears, magnets, solenoid, relay, giant-ass battery and an additional 35 pounds of unwanted excess, I’m selling the house and looking to relocate to a mountaintop in the Hill Country instead. As they say, it’s all downhill from there—problem solved and I stay sexy.

 

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