Steve McQueen and the Start of Motorcycle Madness

By April 11, 2017Uncategorized

by Dana

In my youth motor cycle racing was a passion. Motocross racing to be specific. The passion began in about 1969 after watching the movie The Great Escape, a World War Two film about; as you might expect, a great prisoner of war escape based upon an actual event.  In the movie, the actor Steve McQueen commandeered a motor cycle from a German combatant by stringing a wire across the road. As the German bad guy motors bye, McQueen employs the snare disembarking the rider from the bike in dramatic fashion and steals the motor bike.  McQueen proceeds to elude the German army upon this bike by riding across the country side and even jumping over fences.  How great was that.  He eventually got recaptured after crashing into a barbed wire fence and is sent back to solitary confinement along with his baseball and glove to pass the time. Steve McQueen was so cool and we all wanted to be like him. Turns out in real life McQueen raced motor cycles. As youngsters often do we emulated McQueen. Us kids would stand on opposite sides of our neighborhood street and as a car approached we would make the motion of pulling taunt a wire. The prank sometimes causing the motorist to jam on the brakes as we gleefully scattered using a predetermined escape route. When that got boring we began using real kite string.  Later we got bold enough not to even run away. When the driver angrily exited the vehicle to scorn us we would just stand there and laugh. Boldness however can escalate into extremism.  After the ‘stop cars with a string trick’ no longer generated the necessary levels of adrenaline, we invented more sinister pranks. One such delinquent act was to tie the kite string to a rock and toss it over the nearest street lamp that hung over the center of the road. The rock was than replaced with a water balloon and hoisted up. When an unexpected motorist approached, the goal was to release the string just at the right moment for the water filled balloon, assisted by the laws of gravity to drop upon the roof of the car. Kaboom! Ha Ha Ha.  Interestingly enough we executed this dirty deed within full view, in full daylight of all the picture windows of the homes lining the street. Stay at home Moms must have been more tolerant in those days. Or perhaps not, after all do parents know what children are doing on the internet today? My Mother did have limits of proper behavior however that were not tolerated. When the balloon trick no longer provided enough fun, we escalated our terror tactics by aiming pop bottle rockets at passing motorist. In one incident, our aim was too accurate.  Hidden at the side of our house one evening, as a car approached we lit the fuse, aimed and swoosh the aerial device shot through the air and into the open driver’s side window where it proceeded to bounce around the interior in a shower of sparks.  As the driver leapt from his vehicle we hastily entered into the back door of my parents’ home. There we encountered my mother, coolly waiting with her signature spanking rod. She had observed our foolish behavior.  As my friends and I bolted pass the threshold towards the basement stairs we all received a formidable whack.  Mother did not discriminate, she would wield out justice to her own sons as well as my friends whenever we crossed the line.

To advance the story, about this time the film On any Sunday was released. A documentary about motor cycle racing that also featured Steve McQueen. In those days motor cycle racing events were held on Sundays because the sport was still in its infancy and most participants were amateur enthusiasts. Before indulging how this film influenced a motorcycle passion for myself and a generation of others I must first briefly describe the geography in which I lived.  You should know we lived in the post war suburban expansion.  Our home was right on the edge of modern suburbia and rural environment. From our neighborhood north 20 miles to the city of Detroit was a nearly continuous development of suburban track homes. From our small fenced in back-yard south was rural western Michigan. We truly lived on the edge of two worlds, urban to the north and rural to the south.  Behind our back fence was woods and a drainage ditch that we interpreted as a creek, it was our playground. During the summer as kids we spent our time from breakfast until the streets lights came on, building forts, spearing carp fish in the creek, climbing trees, fighting kids from rival neighborhoods whose homes also bordered the woods, and playing games such as “two catch all” and even “torture”.  With Television programing limited and computers nonexistent we developed our own alternate reality games typically based around our limited comprehension of the great war or Cowboys and Indians.  In the game torture, a dozen or so of us  would split up into groups between the younger kids and older kids. The older kids would seek out the younger kids hiding in the woods and if caught perform Indian torture techniques, staking them to the ground and sprinkling dirt or dry weeds on exposed torsos to cause discomfort and maybe there was some red ants nearby to increase the pain. Man, that was some good times. As part of the young kids I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of not being caught. So, before I get back to the motorcycles I have to set the stage some more.  Behind the back fence as I mentioned was a forest of oak trees, maples, elms, weeds, reeds and all types of deciduous plants.  At some point the older kids had decided we needed our own personal ball park. Now you got to know in the late 60’s the baby boom era was still in full swing, there was dozens of kids on our neighborhood block and it was common for us to challenge other blocks in various sporting contests, football, street hockey, baseball, snow ball fights and any type of activity that involved competition often resulting in bloody noses and broken collar bones. Anyhow it was decided we would create a ball field out of the forest behind our homes.  We raided our parent’s garages accumulating hatchets, saws and shovels and began to chop down trees and set them on fire.  As you might imagine some of the parents became curious of our activity and began to investigate our youthful ambition.  Keep in mind were talking kids between the age of ten and fourteen who embarked upon a slash and burn technique directly behind our home.  The parents were a little concerned about our methods but to their credit did not criticize our ambition but rather instigated an alternative plan.  My next-door neighbor, Bob was a local cop.  He was the neighborhood egotist and self-proclaimed hero type, originally from Kentucky I believe.  Bob was the type of guy who would confiscate illegal fireworks from all the kids in town all year and then set them off on fourth of July for our neighborhoods enjoyment. I remember once a car sped by our home exceeding the 25-mile speed limit. Bob was in his yard working on his lawn. He jumped into his patrol car and gave chase presumably apprehending the culprit it short order.  Bob made the offender drive back to the neighborhood, park in front of his house, where he proudly wrote him the citation for all the neighbors to witness. Bob was also an expert marksman, the bar in his basement was filled with shooting competition trophy’s.  Sadly, he was once involved in a lethal shooting of a criminal that resulted in controversy.  We all feared him but also respected him.  As a bit of a trouble maker myself it was bad luck living next door to Bob. He protected his home turf with a vengeance and knew what all us kids were up too.  Bob did serve us kids well with the slash and burn project however.  He used his influence with the city, borrowed a bull dozer and spent a weekend or two clearing about two acres of forest behind our homes to create our ball field.  The parents even got together and erected a back stop using cyclone fence material to complete the project adding a touch of class.  I’m still not certain who owned that land, whether it was public domain or private but I’m rather certain no permission or permits were ascertained. No harm no foul was the rule, besides who would dare get on Bobs bad side. We had some raucous ball tournaments on that crude field but more importantly it became our local dirt bike track in the years to come.  As you recall we thought Steve McQueen and his motorcycles were so cool.  One day in 1970 I was out exploring the woods. There was a single-track trail that followed the creek for miles and we rode our bicycles along the path pretending to have motors . Suddenly three dirt bikes came screaming down the trail. They were loud and fast and the riders were dressed in black leather.  The riders were some tough kids I recognized from school, guys I went out of my way to avoid.  They entered our field and proceeded to ride around and around, kicking up dirt, creating a cloud of blue exhaust and raising general hell and chaos.  I never felt such envy in my life.  I knew right then and there my life would never be fulfilled until I had a dirt bike. My parents however would have nothing to do with me getting a dirt bike. My older brothers Mark and Tony also wanted bikes and our normal adolescent negotiating techniques were un successful. Tony who was four years my elder was nearly of adult age, eighteen in those years, and was still rebuffed by my mother who was adamantly fearful he would become a motorcycle gang member if she relented.  My father however was known for his negotiating skills and proposed a solution that was presumably in his favor.  He challenged Tony if he could find any research that proved motorcycles were safe than he could buy one.  Damn if Tony didn’t go to the library and find a book that revealed statistically that motorcycles were indeed safe. So, it came about that in 1971 Tony purchased a Suzuki 125 dirt bike.  Not long afterwards the “old man” took a spin on that bike and was grinning from ear to ear.  Shortly after, one evening he ordered Mark and I, as he often did, into the station wagon to accompany him to the store.  Typically, we would end up at the hardware store or Sears to buy needed supplies for chores.  This time to our surprise we arrived at the motorcycle dealer, where we received a firsthand lesson on negotiating and drove home with a fire engine red Suzuki 90 to share.  Of course, it was learned quickly that two competitive brothers willing to in Hockey terms “drop the gloves” at any moment to solve disputes could not share a dirt bike and so it came to be that Mark was soon a proud owner of his own Wombat 125 dirt bike machine.

I cannot begin to describe the joy of being a 12-year-old with your own dirt bike and outside the gate of your backyard was an endless forest with trails. We rode every day after school and on weekends venturing off to the motocross track several miles away.  The track was located on some vacant corporate property not far from the new Detroit Metropolitan Airport. There was a large sandy area where a track developed surrounded by woods.  I don’t recall who owned the property but they apparently didn’t mind that it became a major dirt bike destination.  In those days, no one would have even thought about suing the owners upon injury, such an action would be simply too dishonorable.  We and dozens of other kids spent many of hours and days racing each other on that track.  The biggest problem with this informal race track however was riding there without getting busted by the cops. Much of the route was within the camouflage of several woods along the way however there were several stretches that required riding along the shoulder of a major roadway where we were vulnerable to the adjacent cities police department. The first few times we were spotted by the cops was scary, they would signal us to stop and when disobeyed by us, give chase. In time, we became defiant and comfortable, waving at them before darting into the protection of the next woods.  This behavior of course pissed off the Officers obliged to enforce the law.  They eventually learned are routine and tried to set up ambushes against us that failed to achieve desired results.  Eventually their investigation revealed what neighborhood we originated from and one day showed up at our home to interrogate my mother. Mom, who by this time was onboard with the motorcycle fun defended us essentially telling the overreaching cops to stay on their own side of the tracks and find more worthy criminals to pursuit.

About this time, the town was building a new middle school a mile or so south of our home.  They cleared away part of the woods for the construction site.  We would ride up to the site and climb the massive hill of dirt that was formed from excavation work, again eluding the authorities and the heavy equipment operators we furiously irritated.  The school opened at the beginning of my seventh-grade year in school and my friends and I could ride our motorcycles along the creek trail to the school yard.  The shop teacher, who owned a classic Norton motorcycle himself was ok with us parking them outside his class room.  The principle however had a different idea about that arrangement.  So, there you have it, my little story of how I began a decade long passion for a two-wheeled machine.  Not Pulitzer Prize material by any means but maybe you enjoyed it and hopefully it loosened some memories of your own wondrous youth.

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