In the spring of my junior year, I stepped out of the library building after a long evening of study. A full yellow moon hung over the campus. The grass had been mown that afternoon and now gave off a sweet, intoxicating smell. Crickets, exalting in the warm evening, chirped at their finest.
I walked along the edge of the grassy quad and sat down under one of the cherry trees. The blossoms, glowing white in the moonlight, added their delicate scent to the warm evening air.
I looked up at the full moon shining through the flowering branches of the tree overhead. I breathed in the enchanting odors of spring. The beauty around me was overwhelming, invigorating, powerful—but it also brought me pain.
“How do I fit into all this?” I wondered. I felt disconnected: here I sat in the midst of all this beauty, but I still didn’t know what my place was in it. A deep sadness came over me for I did not yet have an answer to the question I had voiced as a seven year old: “Why am I on the earth?”
The day after final exams were over that year, I strapped on my helmet, jumped on my Honda motorcycle and roared off on my first road trip, heading home to Connecticut.
After I’d bought this motorcycle from a fellow student in the fall, I’d hauled it up three flights of stairs to my dorm room to keep it safe for the winter. When warm weather came, I brought it back down and had spent some great afternoons swooping through the curves on the Gettysburg battlefield roads.
My father had told me that it would be good if I sold it, telling me that motorcycles were dangerous. I had let him know that I’d “taken care” of the motorcycle, meaning I’d had it tuned up so it was ready for the six hour trip home.
I was exhilarated as I rode out onto the highway, the wind whipping my helmet strap against my cheek. However, within an hour the motorcycle developed a grinding noise. After looking it over, I thought it was probably just the chain rubbing on the enclosed guard. I decided to press on and ignore the sound, just as I was ignoring the darkness gathering in my soul.
After a long day on the road, I crested the last hill before the farm homestead at about 5 pm. I coasted down the lane and turned into the tire shop. Dad came out. “What can I do for you?” he asked.
“I’d like to change the air in my tires,” I joked.
Dad nodded and bent down to take the cap off the valve of the front tire, following one of his sayings, “the customer is always right, as long as what he wants isn’t dangerous.” So he was going to humor me.
“Are you from around here?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered, “I’m your son!”
Dad looked up in astonishment; my unexpected arrival, along with the helmet and motorcycle had thrown him off. He began to laugh and slapped me on the back. “Welcome home!” he said.
That summer Dad tried out the motorcycle himself and soon got the hang of it. He still insisted that I sell it, which I did after riding it back to Gettysburg the next year.
In the spring, however, I got news that Dad had bought himself a motorcycle, a BSA 250 Road Star and was riding it both on and off the road. The bug had bitten him, and he could hardly talk of anything else except riding his “bike.”
It was just what he had been looking for as a solution to his mid-life crisis: a masculine challenge that would keep him active with excitement, keep him young, and give him the illusion of being in control of it all. This was to be the major influence in Dad’s life for most of his remaining years.
Picture: that summer I took down the old silos on the farm