by Scott A. Williams
Mel Williams was never a motorcycle guy. He was a bookworm, and he was my Dad. For 43 years he taught English at a private college in New England because he loved books and people, and talking to people about books.
He taught me to love books, too, but I learned to love something Dad cared little about: motorcycles. It was my first clandestine ride on Dickie’s 50cc Suzuki that hooked me. The thrill of motion, that clutchless three-speed, and the best wrist-twisting kick in the pants my 10-year-old self could wish for.
As far as a motorbike of my own, though, wishing was all I could do. Throughout my childhood, Dad made it perfectly clear: no motorcycle. His idea of compromise was a used riding lawn mower which, he reasoned, I could ride for fun while cutting the lawn. That 5-horsepower Craftsman never cut it for me.
There were friends with bikes, however. Mike next door let me ride his Kawasaki KZ400. I stalled it half way around the block on my first ride and I was too small to kick it started. In a while Mike came looking for me. He kicked the motor back to life and let me finish my ride. A few years later Tim got the mother lode – a Honda CB750 with four cylinders, four carbs, four pipes, and electric start. There was no doubt in my mind: I was a motorcycle guy.
After college I scraped up the money to buy a bike of my own. A friend’s well-maintained Honda CM400E could be mine for six payments of $100. All I needed was a safe place to park it.
Dad lived in the same suburban home where I grew up, and I called him with an offer: “Dad, I’d like to clean your garage.”
“Go on,” he said, a bit skeptical.
“I need to make room for a motorcycle. I’ll organize the place and keep it clean. Think of a clean garage as rent.” To my surprise, Dad accepted my proposal and my first motorcycle had a home. Over the years I got larger and faster motorcycles, then a house, a wife and a daughter, but even with my bike parked in my own garage, I still kept Dad’s garage tidy.
Dad developed an occasional interest in motorcycles as a by-product of his constant interest in me, his only son. On a father/son trip in Florida he expressed an interest that caught me by surprise. In his signature professorial manner he observed, “I’ve been neither pilot nor passenger on any motorized two-wheeled conveyance.” I said I could change that. He smiled. His health had been in a slow decline, but if he felt up to it someday, he wanted to ride.
A couple years later he learned of a new surgical technique that offered hope for some recovery. As I sat with him in his hospital room the day after surgery, I saw a joyous man with a new lease on life. Dad asked me again if I’d take him for a motorcycle ride. I promised I would and we talked of roads and destinations he’d like.
Twelve days later Dad died. A chain-reaction of post-surgical complications was too much for his ailing body. I had lost my best friend before he got to take his first ride.
Later that week as I exited the funeral home carrying Dad’s ashes, I was struck by the beauty of the day. Deep blue sky, brilliant sunshine, absolute calm – it was hard to believe for late winter in New England.
My thoughts quickly shifted to “motorcycle ride.” Back at home I did my pre-ride inspection, suited up in heated clothing, packed Dad’s remains securely in the saddlebag, and set out. Our ride went up Wilbraham mountain then down the steep, winding hill he called the “roller coaster.” This was one place where Dad intentionally exceeded the speed limit as he motored along in whichever Pontiac or Oldsmobile he had at the time. I do the same on my Hondas.
Cruising through bucolic western Massachusetts, we passed churches where Dad had been the minister and elementary schools where he’d spoken to kids about local history. We rode by old graveyards which he viewed as outdoor museums and restaurants where we broke bread together.
One of Dad’s favorite outdoor spots was Quabbin Reservoir. He loved to explain – over and over – how five towns in the Swift River Valley were flooded in 1939 so Bostonians could have drinking water. We slowly cruised the shoreline roads, then parked and hiked to the summit.
Above the still-frozen reservoir, one bald eagle soared with effortless grace. Dad admired birds of prey; as this one’s splayed tail feathers reflected the sun, I sensed a deep spiritual connection with the man who helped me appreciate books, experience nature, and understand love. Was this eagle his way of letting me know that I had helped him at last to appreciate motorcycles?
As we wandered our way home, I found myself at peace. Dad got his ride on a motorized two-wheeled conveyance, and he continues to ride within me.
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This story has inspired written responses from readers all across the U.S. and Canada as well as England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Malaysia and Argentina. Several self-described “grown men” said it brought them to tears. A few explained that they were moved to make immediate plans to spend time with their own dad, before it’s too late.
For several years running, my first motorcycle ride of the season has included a stop at Quabbin Reservoir. Eagles, red tailed hawks or both have been observed at the reservation each time. A tradition is established that I intend to continue for as long as I am able to ride.
By the Summit Tower there stands an evergreen, rooted at a higher elevation than any other tree in the Quabbin Reservation. Some of Dad’s ashes were scattered at its base. At the time of the season’s first ride, that evergreen is a comforting reminder of one of Dad’s enduring lessons: life carries on.
In memory of Rev. Dr. Melvin G. Williams, November 7, 1937 – March 6, 2004
This essay has appeared in:
- “The Art of Motorcycle Stories” created for the Art of the Motorcycle exhibit at the Orlando Museum of Art
- The online collection of the University of Central Florida’s School of Film and Digital Media