It has been at least 30 years since my Army buddy, Harley Cawthorne and I parted. I’m not really sure what his first name was; he answered to Harley because that’s what he rode and loved.
During the time of year when I was panting corn I received a letter in the mailbox from Harley; imagine the surprise after 30 plus years. It was postmarked Elko, Nevada – never heard of it. In the letter, he gave me directions to his place.
He didn’t live in Elko. He lived in a place called Shantytown. Directions accompanied the letter, scribbled on a small scrap of paper with a grocery list on the other side.
What intrigued me about Harley, he started me on my interest in the renowned motorcycle of fame and lore. He wrote of possessing over 100 bikes in mint condition and he wanted me to see them.
The sun baked me into a shriveled hot dog by the time I rolled into Shantytown. The cultivating back home was tended to by my nephew, Franky, who can’t remove a spark plug from a gas mower, but can drive a cornrow straight.
The road to Shantytown reminded me of one of those roads to who-knows-where in Twilight Zone.
Me and my ‘58 candy apple red Harley Duo-Glide putted into Shantytown and rested at the corner of Nowhere and Oblivion under a tree that looked as if it could use a drink. As for me, I pulled a canteen of water from my saddle bag and had a good swig.
A door slapped shut from a nearby house. A bent over old man quick stepped it toward me.
“Are you Harley’s friend,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
His face had lines deep enough to be local three-dimensional topography map.
“You got his directions?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“On the back is a shopping list,” the man said. “Harley said to pick up those things and leave ‘em at my house.”
That was Harley’s way of thinking. “Where’s that grocery list? Oh, I sent it to my buddy in Iowa on the back of the directions. Hey, I’ll just have him pick up groceries too.”
“Why don’t I just get the groceries and use the directions to deliver them personally?” I said.
“Can’t do that,” the man said.
“Why?” I said.
“Harley’s dead,” the man said. “He willed the groceries to me.”
“Who’s going to pay for them?” I said.
“It must be you, because it ain’t gonna be me,” the man said.
I flipped the kickstart down and she started right up. “Good day, my friend.”
“Hey,” the man yelled above the pop of the engine. “Harley left you 118 bikes you could at least buy a sack of groceries for an old man.”
Well, I cut my engine. And sure enough, the old man had 117 titles in the house. Harley had the 118th bike buried next to him and the title stashed in his pocket.
The next couple months back in Iowa were spent clearing out an old barn and having the Harleys transported.
Every now and then folks will stop by and ask me if I’m the guy that has all the motorcycles. I flip on the lights and let them take a gander.
One rough looking biker rode up one day. He asked to see the collection, which was fine with me. I think that’s what Harley would have wanted. On the back of the man’s jacket it read, “If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand.”
After looking, he offered me $20.
“That’s okay,” and told him about how I came across the Harley’s. We swapped a few stories and I confessed to being farmer and a motorcycle enthusiast only. My interest in motorcycles, a hobby only.
“When I first me Harley,” I said, “I asked him probably the question that prompted what’s on the back of your jacket.”
He grinned. And it was a big grin, slice of watermelon grin.
“Everything in a car is hidden. How can you trust that? He told me about a motorcycle everything is there. It’s all in the open; a perfect blend of machine, imagination, simplicity, and locomotion. You look for that in people.”
“Yep,” he said, “that’s ‘bout as close as you can get. He must have been a real friend.”
“Yeah,” I said. “to leave me with 117 Harley’s.”
“I wasn’t thinkin’ of that,” he said. “It’s what he told you. That’s something deep and personal. You don’t let that stuff out to just anybody.”