“Anybody Can Ride One”

My wife is a morning television addict. We live in a rural area with no over-the-air television available and I’m too cheap for cable, so she watches the late night talk shows in the morning. The irritating noises coming from our living room inspired a hunt for the best noise-cancelling, Bluetooth, in-ear monitors so that I could avoid the morning squawking noise of Seth Myers and Jimmy Kimmel’s dry sarcasm that makes the awful seem even worse. Sometimes she is so inspired by what she sees that she is compelled to “share” it with me. This morning that interruption was inspired by a Kimmel interview with David Letterman. Apparently, Letterman bought Regis Philbin a Vespa scooter under the assumption that “everybody knows how to ride a motor scooter.” Like so many folks on Harleys every summer weekend in the country, it turns out that assumption is idiotic. Of course, Philbin crashed after traveling a few feet on the scoooter. “He could have been killed. He actually could have been killed. The last night before he retires he comes over, and I kill him,” Letterman said with a laugh. “… Nobody checked him out on it, because the assumption was, A, anybody can ride a scooter. And B, certainly Regis will ride a scooter.

Back when I was still teaching the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety classes, in 2011, I wrote a Geezer rant I titled “#101 It’s Not A #&^%#@ Wheelchair.” I summed up my irritation in that essay with, “My generation seems to have created a lot of people who think the laws of physics can be influenced by money, the legal system, and by a heartfelt ‘I wanna.’ Velocity and acceleration (up or down) are ruthless. Gravity is insensitive to your brittle bones and inflexible joints. You don’t get special consideration on the highway simply because traffic is moving ‘too fast’ or you can’t muster up the courage to make the bike stop or turn. Other highway users expect you to ‘drive it or park it.’ Being handicapped on a motorcycle is often fatal.” Almost always, in fact. I don’t know where “anybody can ride a scooter” comes from. Sure, they have small flat wheels that almost balance themselves, but that doesn’t help at all with turning, stopping, or being aware of traffic and hazards and figuring out what to do about those hazards in a second or two.

While my wife was taking a break from her morning television routine, she was reminded of my father and his “scooter experience,” which actually was an electric wheelchair. He’d been house-bound for several years by the symptoms of progressive myasthenia gravis, failing eyesight, and CHF. My step-sister thought it would be good for him to get out of the house and she, Medicare, and the VA bought him an electric wheelchair. For a couple of days, he was like a kid with a brand new motorcycle. He rode that thing around his neighborhood, to the local grocery store, and had a great time. My step-sister, on the other hand, almost had heart failure watching him blindly (literally) barrel through busy intersections and head-on into traffic without a clue that people were dodging him and freaking out at the sight of an overweight old man in an electric wheelchair in the middle of the road. Eventually, some issue came up with the wheelchair and he went back to watching his big screen television. It could have been as simple as the battery being run down, my father was that technically inept, and nobody showed him how to use the charger. When he died, a couple of years later, the wheelchair looked brand new. He proved that it isn’t true that “anybody can ride a wheelchair.”

In the late 1970s, we were living in a small Nebraska town and a friend, the drummer in a band I’d been in, decided he wanted to buy a motorcycle so he could ride with his friends. I was a dirt-only motorcyclist at the time and had been for 15 years, but I helped him pick a Honda CX500 Deluxe, gave him a little instruction about how to ride the bike, convinced him to buy a helmet, a decent leather jacket, some boots, and gloves. And off he went. The friends he wanted to ride with were, obviously, all cruiser wannabe biker types with a couple of actual hardcore bikers—prison tats and records and all. None of them wore any actual motorcycle gear and they quickly convinced him to dump the helmet, boots, gloves, but he could keep the jacket for cool days. They also “helped” him install ape-hangers and dump the front brake, since the cable wouldn’t reach. Not even a whole month into this experience, he went off of the road in a mild turn, plowed through a barbed-wire fence, and flew almost 100’ before he ended up in a heap in someone’s corn field.

His head injury left him with a speech impediment for the rest of his life and other damage that always made him seem like he’d had a stroke. His legs were broken so badly that there was talk about amputating one or both, but they ended up pinning him together so that he could get around on his own. Of course, that was the end of his music life. You have to be able to flex everything in your legs and feet to operate a hat and kick drum and the rest of his coordination and strength weren’t up to swinging the sticks, either. So, he’s mostly just been a barfly for the last 40 years, luckily he had a significant inheritance to cover his expenses and to provide him with a home. Like Regis and my father, my friend (and several of his friends over the next few years) proved that it isn’t true that “anybody can ride a motorcycle.”

The industry, of course, has a vested interest in convincing as many people as possible that they belong on an expensive motorcycle that will enhance their lifestyle and self-image. Unfortunately, the so-called “motorcycle safety” industry is usually directly connected to the manufacturers (MIC/MSF, for example) and their vested interests are all about “putting butts on seats” with minimal interference from actual safety concerns. Thanks to them and their efforts, goofballs like David Letterman are deluded into believing the hype and imagining “that anybody can ride a scooter.”

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