Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Year in Illinois - Part III

This week I continue Larry's description of our year living in Chicago, from April 1, 1969 through March 30, 1970. I thought I had posted it as a blog long ago, but I discovered I hadn’t. So, please enjoy Part 3 of his walk down Memory Lane.

During the winter months, my neighbor, Bob Wilson raced in both enduro and motocross. Enduro was off-road cross-country race, usually around sixty-to-one hundred miles in length. The route followed a path marked with white chalk, painted arrows on trees and warning signs indicating hazards along the way. The objective was to maintain a twenty-five mph average speed between checkpoints scattered along the route. This was not an easy task, as the trail often led through wooded areas, three-foot deep river crossings, and up and down steep, rocky hills. The sport was very big in Europe at the time, where some races were as much as five-hundred miles in length and lasting over five days.

Motocross, on the other hand, was a multi-lap race over a two-to-four mile dirt closed course with many jumps, tight turns, and always a washboard straight-away with a big jump in the middle. Here, the fastest cycle won.

I had left my 60cc Yamaha back in my parents’ garage in California. When Bob found out, he persuaded me to have it shipped out so I could join him on the winter motorcycle circuit. I contacted a shipper and was told the bike needed to be crated before they would accept it.

Back in California, one of my co-workers, and a good friend, moonlighted as a carpenter. I contacted him to ask if he could crate my bike for shipment. He agreed. Several weeks later, this amazing seven-foot long, three-foot wide, and four-foot tall plywood box, reinforced with 2x4s, arrived at the apartment. It took Bob and me several hours to pry the end off and extricate the cycle. The crate was so well-constructed, we couldn’t knock it down. Finally, I put it next to the apartment, reattached the end with hinges, and it became a motorcycle garage. When we finally left Illinois, the manager took over the box and used it for a storage shed for his garden tools.

Before I could race, the motorcycle had to be modified. Fenders, lights, license plate, and any parts not absolutely necessary were removed to reduce weight. I attached a skidpan to the bottom to protect the engine and frame from boulders, fallen logs, and anything else we might encounter on the trail. Finally, I added knobby tires for traction in the dirt.

Over the next couple of months, we spent Saturdays at the races in various small towns in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. I was in the sportsman under 100cc class, Bob in the 250cc class. Sportsman meant if you fell down on the course during the race, the other riders generally went around you. The professional class didn’t offer the same courtesy. The track announcer usually instructed the spectators to “…take your kids by the hand and tie your dog to a tree,” prior to the start of the professional race.

Just getting to the events was a challenge. Bob could easily load his bike and family in his truck. My cycle went on racks attached to the rear bumper of the little Toyota. With Lorna and Kim inside and the bike on the back, the car was really loaded down. I felt like I was always driving uphill. I’m sure most oncoming traffic thought I had my high beams on when traveling after dark.

Our first couple of races came before the winter frost set in. The tracks were wet and muddy. At one motocross in Elkhorn Wisconsin, by the third lap of the ten-lap race, the mud was so deep it came up to the wheel hubs. I loved it, however, as the larger, heavier bikes bogged down and sank into the ooze, while my lighter one planed on the skidpan and floated over the mess, while the rear tire threw a rooster tail of mud high into the air behind me.

Bob and I had differing riding strategies. Bob felt the fastest way to the finish was a straight line, over rocks, logs, cliffs, people, anything. I, on the other hand, planned my path and took the easiest way whenever possible. While Bob was faster, he tended to crash a lot, and spent most weeknights fixing the damage to his bike to be ready for the next race. Aside from changing spark plugs and the occasional tune-up, I did very little work on mine.

Following the first frost, the muddy tracks dried up and became hard and fast. Here, the larger, more powerful bikes had the advantage.

Winter Blue and Gray
Winter in Chicago started early. In mid-September, we had our first snow. It stayed on the ground until the following March, along with our spirits. Unlike Southern California where we saw snow in the mountains and, if so inclined, visited for short periods to ski, sled, or just play on the chilled white slopes, this was different. Here the fluffy-white turned mushy-gray with salt, soot, and dirt. It piled up on curbs and sidewalks, coated the undersides of autos, and generally made travel slippery and uncomfortable.

One morning, I awoke to find Chicago blanketed by over a foot of new snow. Roads were impassable with four-to-five-foot drifts. The company station wagon, in which I carpooled to work, was buried. No getting out that day. Phone lines were down, so donning my snowmobile suit, motocross leather jacket, helmet, and scarf to protect my face, I headed out on my off-road motorcycle to inform the other carpool riders.

The snow had stopped all traffic. I seemed to be the only one able to move through the drifts. Abandoned cars and trucks littered the streets of my three-mile trip. As I passed each vehicle, I checked for trapped passengers. Fortunately, I didn’t find any.

The dirt bike negotiated deep snow quite well. The skidpan, like a boat hull, rode up on the drifts. The knobby rear tire dug till it found solid ground below. The bike then lurched forward; and the spinning rear wheel repeated the action. Digging and lurching, I must have looked like a kangaroo coming down the snow-covered road. In some places, the snowdrifts were so deep they covered the gas tank. Then the bike would break from the drift like a surfacing submarine.

Arriving at the apartment complex of the other carpool riders, I informed them of the situation, and, after a warm cup of hot chocolate, headed back home.

On the return trip, I stopped along a stretch of road in the forest preserve and turned off the engine.

I was surrounded in a white, absolutely soundless world. Huge, fat snowflakes drifted slowly by. Some settled like doilies on the motorcycle tank before melting from its warmth. Beyond thirty feet, nothing was visible. I couldn’t tell where the sky and land met. The only color in my world was the blue motorcycle tank and my brown leathers. All else was white. The trees along the roadway edge appeared merely as faint shadows. No sound penetrated. It was the most quiet, peaceful place this city boy had ever experienced. I sat for several minutes mesmerized by the scene. Finally, with a sigh, I restarted the engine. Its two-cycle whine broke the mood, and I headed for the warmth of home.


  1. Replies
    1. We didn't realize how exciting it was at the time. We were very innocent! Larry's motorcycle was a real blessing for him.