The Next Ride, Or: Salvaging An Awful Year

Open Trans-Canada Highway Canadian Rocky Mountains

It started Feb. 19 with the death of Stephen Wargo, one of my oldest and best friends, continued with my mother unexpectedly dying in a hospital on April 15, and persisted with a motorcycle-riding colleague getting killed June 8 while riding a bike.

All those dates, now etched in marble somewhere. An awful year.

Emotionally detached, I went into near-stasis for weeks, focusing on what only needed to be done at that moment. Just numb, no energy or desire for anything else. Everything pretty much went to hell.

Straight to hell, including the motorcycles, which waited silently as I tried to figure out what to do. The covers never came off Linda’s scooters. The battery aboard Endurance flatlined from lack of use. I think I commuted to work on Terra Nova exactly once.

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The one thing we had to do was not give up our annual motorcycle ride. Linda and I have been doing long-distance rides since 1999, with an unbroken string since 2007.

We rode two-up for years, but started riding our own separate bikes in 2013. The only criteria is that we go someplace we’ve never gone before. Someplace with meaning.

At first we looked overseas, with thoughts of renting a bike in Vietnam, Australia, or the U.K.

The U.K. took the lead for a while. I even put up a Michelin map of Great Britain in the hallway and circled destinations like Dundee, Scotland, where Scott and Shackleton’s ship, the RSS Discovery, is now a floating museum; and Dorset, England, where T.E. Lawrence lived at his Clouds Hill cottage.

I highlighted Portmeirion, the tourist village in Gwynedd, North Wales, where Patrick McGoohan filmed The Prisoner back in 1966.

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And RAF Fairford, an air base not far from London where my father was stationed in the early 1950s while he was in the Air Force.

But Linda underwent extensive foot surgery in June and the recovery process was slow and painful; she did not think she could safely ride her own bike. Then other circumstances intervened and we regretfully decided it was not prudent to go overseas this year.

That left a domestic ride, with us going two-up on Terra Nova, my Yamaha Super Tenere. But where to go?

And that’s when I started thinking about Wargo1, though I’d never really stopped thinking about him.

He’d hitchhiked to Colorado in 1978 or thereabouts, an epic adventure, with two high school friends. They went to see Wargo’s older brother George, who left Ohio for the adventurous Rockies, made a life there, and never looked back.

I remembered the last conversation Wargo and I had in person, in November 2017; I was getting ready to leave and we were standing outside in his driveway, saying our good-byes. He was talking about Colorado and how much he loved it and how he wanted to retire and move there.

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“It’s like nowhere else, dude,” he said. “It’s beautiful. I really want to go back.”

I thought, well, maybe that’s a trip we could take sometime, and I said something to that effect, and we laughed and nodded and said yes, maybe we could because we stupidly thought we had time.

And then I went home and three months later things started falling apart and I found myself at his funeral in February, giving his eulogy, being his pallbearer, and remembering everything we talked about, especially Colorado.

Colorado. Linda and I crossed the state while traveling from Reno to Washington, D.C., but never spent significant time there. Going two-up on Terra Nova meant we could go farther, even travel cross-country as we did before.

And so the ideas gradually came together and hammered at me: Wargo. Two-up. Farther. Colorado. Of course. Why did I not see this before?

We’ll leave Aug. 31, burn west across I-70 and see what Wargo saw back in 1978. We’ll go to Golden, where Wargo’s older brother George lived, pay homage at George’s grave in Arvada, ride to the summit of Pike’s Peak2, and then loop south through the San Juan Mountains up to Montrose and visit Wargo’s nephew Stephan (George’s son).

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I’ve contacted Stephan to let him know we’re coming and I’ve let Wargo’s sisters know of our plans. I’ve reached out to Wargo’s friends and the two guys who were with him on that epic hitch-hiking odyssey 40+ years ago; I hope to talk with them soon.

Terra Nova is at the Yamaha dealer for full maintenance and new tires. I’ve ordered a new, more comfortable Sargent saddle. Brackets for the passenger pegs have arrived from Ringe, Germany. We’re finally, finally in motion again.

The ride will be a bit of a challenge; we haven’t ridden two-up since 2012, when we went to Glacier National Park aboard Endurance. We’ll have to pack super-light. We’ll be in the Rockies so we’ll have to prep for heat, cold and rain.

I’ll take a framed photograph of Wargo and leave it with his brother George. And I’ll find one rock, just one, from the Colorado mountains and leave it with Wargo when I visit the Northfield-Macedonia Cemetery.

I’ll try to see Colorado the way Steve saw it. I think it won’t be difficult, because — like the Third Man in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land3 — he’ll be there with me.

And while this Colorado motorcycle ride won’t restore what we’ve lost, it will make 2018 just a bit less awful.

1 — We most always called each other by our last names. It was just one of those things.
2 — I started thinking about Pike’s Peak while considering Colorado; I’d read “Across America by Motor-Cycle,” a 1922 book by C.H. Shepherd, an RAF officer who rode a motorcycle from New York to San Francisco after World War I. Linda and I visited Steve in July 2016, the first time I’d seen him in years; he was wearing a Colorado T-shirt. I went looking for a photo of that shirt (for the top of this page) and was surprised to see Pike’s Peak there, too. It conferred further blessing on the mission.
3 — “Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
-But who is that on the other side of you?”
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Two More for McCray

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June 2: It’s not precisely motorcycle-related, but I’m wandering the magical Coventry area of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on a brief photo recon for a dear friend — photographing scenes of distant memories for her — when I stumble across a memory of my own.

It’s a 1970s-era Raleigh Grand Prix bicycle, white with black trim, the exact same bike owned by a couple of my high school riding buddies, Tom McCray among them, I believe1.

It sits there like a thunderclap from the past, loosely chained to a bike rack. I circle it in delight, thinking, “McCray has got to see this.”

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It has the same three-armed cottered crankset, DiaCompe centerpull brakes, chromed front forks, high-flanged hubs and Simplex derailleur group. I can’t get a good look at the rear derailleur without moving the bike, which I’m loathe to do, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a Prestige2.

It has to be someone’s daily commuter bike, and — aside from some surface rust and the handlebar tape starting to unravel on the left drop — looks pretty good for being 40 years old. The brake cables even have clamped metal caps on the ends, to prevent the cables from fraying, a nice touch.

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That was the highlight of the day until, searching for the location of the former renown Coventry restaurant earth by april3, I walk into the Bottle House Brewery and Meadery on Lee Road and find a beautiful Colnago on the wall.

Ah, Colnago, the high-end Italian racing bicycle. And this one, a 12-speed Nuovo Mexico from 1982, is perfect. Hand-made steel frame, all Campagnolo components (rear derailleur looks like a Super Record) chrome front fork, tightly-spaced Regina 13-20 freewheel, flawless paint job, just beautiful.

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Just beautiful. Seeing it clamped to the wall as a decoration is revolting, but this is a seriously expensive and relatively rare bicycle. Maybe it’s safer inside. Still, it seems a shame it’s not being ridden; that’s why it was built.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, bicycles were a precursor to motorcycles for me. Both are vehicles of freedom, taking you farther than you thought possible.

So I remember our bicycling days with gratitude, to the extent that if the Grand Prix owner had appeared on Coventry Road, I would have made an offer for the bike, for the memories of where we’ve been, and the promise of where we’ll go.


1 — Eric Blemaster was another Grand Prix owner.
2 — Grand Prix bikes came with Simplex Prestige rear derailleurs, which are notable because they were the first with parallelograms built of delrin, a hardy plastic that could be finely machined. Unfortunately, delrin was not as durable as metal.
3 — It’s earth by april, no capitalization, since the name was taken from the 31st line of the e.e. cummings poem anyone lived in a pretty how town. The restaurant closed decades ago but is still fondly remembered. It was located, not in the space occupied by the brewery, but at the corner of Cedar and Lee streets. The Cedar-Lee Theatre has expanded into the building.

 

En Passant

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En passant (in passing): In chess, a French termfor a special pawn move allowing the capture of an opposing pawn on the fifth rank.

We met, not on the fifth rank, but way, way back in the fifth grade, at a school where I was new and alone and kinda scared.

I’ll never forget him turning around to look at me as we were identifying ourselves in class and how he caught up with me later and introduced himself. We were mates, as the English say, after that.

Thus began my decades-long friendship with Stephen Wargo. I became friends not only with him, but with his entire family — his parents, his brother George, and sisters Kathi and Barb, who always made me feel welcome. Wonderful folks, all.

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From left: Barb, Stephen, Kathi and George.

I never called him Stephen, though I did call him Steve, but most times it was just Wargo or Dude. Or (rarely) Pišta, the Hungarian nickname used by his family. He called me Petras, of course.

We hung out together a lot, into high school, where we ran together on the cross-country team (though neither of us was very good) and we did a few epic bicycle trips to Punderson State Park and camping rides across Ohio 87 to Pymatuning State Park on the Pennsylvania border.

Those trips are important because they fired my desire for travel and eventually evolved into long-distance motorcycle rides2.

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Steve and I drifted apart after high school, long before I got on motorcycles. He was ahead of me in doing some amazing courageous things, like hitchhiking Jack Kerouac-style to Colorado to see his beloved older brother George3.

Hitchhiking — I’d dreamed about doing something daring like that but could never work up the nerve, could never get past the danger. But Steve just went and did it. He loved skiing and fishing and Colorado and the West.

“Once you cross the Mississippi, you’ll never want to come back,” he told me. I thought about that in 1995, while I was driving from Ohio to Nevada for a newspaper job in Reno.

I was in a Ford Ranger pickup pulling a 5×8 trailer with Discovery, my 1994 Yamaha Virago, stuffed inside. I wished he could have seen me then.

I saw him briefly on a visit home to Ohio in 1997 but we didn’t see one another again until 2016, when his sister Barb found me on the Internet.

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My wife Linda and I visited Steve that July. His mother had passed away in the previous November, I think, and it was obvious he was still deeply in mourning. But we were very glad to see each other and it was as if the time had not passed, or did not matter.

We had a lot of laughs and we talked about the bicycle rides and the hikes and the cross country team and our crazy rubber raft ride down the Chagrin River. I’d gotten some sort of two-man inflatable raft as a Christmas gift and he and I took it on the river through the Cleveland Metroparks.

It was really a stupid-ass thing to do. The river still had ice on it and we managed to slice open the underside of the floor chamber. The raft still floated, though.

Then Steve dropped one of the two paddles and the current took it away and I ended up crawling out on the ice to retrieve it. If the ice had broken, I would have gone in and probably risked hypothermia.

Good times. A link to the 3-minute video I did for him is here.

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Somewhere, in the jungle of our attic at home, I have a photo of us carrying that raft. I also have pictures from our other adventures, the bicycle rides and the hikes.

I came away from our 2016 reunion seized by the idea of us retracing one of our grand bicycle rides, because it seemed like he was so steeped in grief about his parents and I wanted to get him out of the house and back on the road, or something. You know, something fun.

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I wanted to recapture the magic, the special feeling that’s endured from those rides to the motorcycle adventures Linda and I had later.

I kept talking to Steve about it (putting myself at risk of becoming a pest, I’m afraid) but I think maybe he was getting used to the idea or I was wearing him down; the last time I saw him, in early November 2017, we visited a nice bicycle shop, and looked at a Fuji Touring bike that was really sweet. So I like to think we would have eventually done the ride.

But we didn’t. Steve died unexpectedly of pancreatic cancer on Feb. 19, 20184. The last time I saw him was Nov. 4, 2017.

I’m trying to remember every moment, everything Steve and I talked about. It’s like I want to account for every minute. Since Steve didn’t have email, I was writing physical letters to him once or twice a month and calling at least once a month, or more.

It’s so easy to let friends drift away; life crowds in, as they say, which is so true. I didn’t want to let Steve drift away again.

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And now I have to find a way to cope with his death. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to do that. I think of him often, and I smile at many of those memories, and sometimes laugh out loud, and that helps a little.

I’ve talked to Linda and Tom McCray, another good friend who was a part of those bicycle rides, about recreating Pymatuning. That may happen.

But even if it doesn’t, I think I need to see Ohio 87 and Pymatuning again, on a bicycle or aboard Terra Nova. Either way, I know Steve will be there.

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1 — It literally does translate to “in passing.” Phonetically, it’s pronounced “on pass-on,” in case you were wondering.
2 — Hence Wargo’s inclusion in a motorcycle-travel blog, though he himself did not ride a motorcycle. He’s mentioned elsewhere in Motorcycle Days, and I printed out and mailed him a couple of the travel stories since he disdained computers and was not online.
3  — George was a just super guy, the cool older brother I always wished I had.
4 — We knew Steve was sick, but I suspect the correct diagnosis came too late. I put together a video for his funeral, gave the eulogy, and was one of his pallbearers. God, I miss him.

 

Clarksburg’s Piece of Pearl Harbor

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Sept. 25 | Day 19: They say the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor at dawn in 1941 hear a Japanese children’s song — Menkoi Kouma1 sung by a teenaged girl — as they follow a Honolulu radio station broadcast to their unsuspecting targets ahead.

The pilots listening to that sweet song are carrying death to the battleships, destroyers and other ships of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The carnage defies description.

More than 2,400 people2 die in the attack. Three battleships — the Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah — are sunk. Eighteen other ships are damaged.

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One of them is the battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48). One hundred and six of her crew are killed. The ship is later raised, repaired and sent into the Pacific theater. It earns five battle stars.

I’m thinking of the West Virginia as our motorcycle ride to New Orleans comes to an end. This is our last day on the road and we’re about 230 miles from Falls Church. We’ll be home this evening.

But first we’re stopping here in Clarksburg, W. Va. I’ve researched the West Virginia’s history for a story that was published on the 75th observance of Pearl Harbor and there’s something from the ship I need to see.

Linda and I park the motorcycles on West Main Street and cross over to the Harrison County Courthouse. It’s a typical county government building, except for its art-deco entrance, which favors two fierce eagles that look uncomfortably close to something you’d find at a Nuremberg rally.

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A flagpole from the West Virginia is supposed to be here. We check the two poles outside the building, one with an American flag, the other with a state flag, but don’t see anything special about them. I carry my helmet into the courthouse to find someone to ask.

Inside, I find three uniformed sheriff’s deputies ensconced behind inch-thick plexiglass and a heavy duty metal detector.

Speaking though a hole in the plexiglass — it’s like shouting down a well — I tell them why I’m here and ask where I can find the relic from the West Virginia.

The deputies look at one another, puzzled. “I’m not sure,” one says.

I thank them and go back outside, determined to look at the poles more closely and check the perimeter of the courthouse.

One of older deputies comes out and motions us over to the American flag pole. Ah, he’s made some inquiries and has come to find us. Good man.

That’s when we see the plaque at the base, plain as day, maybe 15 inches wide.

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The West Virginia was hit by seven torpedoes port side, began to burn, and threatened to capsize. The crew counter-flooded the starboard side and the ship sank upright into the harbor, its main deck nearly even with the waterline.

Fire crews extinguished the flames aboard ship and preparations were soon made to raise the vessel and take her stateside for complete repair.

That’s when the salvage workers started hearing noises, a banging sound, coming from inside the ship, below the waterline. They realize there’s someone still alive on the ship, trapped below decks, making noise in hope of rescue.

There’s no way to get to the trapped men. The harbor water is still thick with diesel fuel; cutting with torches could cause an explosion. There’s a risk of explosive decompression if the hull is breached below water. There’s no way to get to them.

The salvagers keep working. The banging sound continues. Legend has it that the men on guard duty at night put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing it.

The West Virginia is refloated on May 17, 1942, 162 days after the attack. In a dry forward storage room, workers find the bodies of three sailors, Ronald Endicott, 18; Clifford Olds, 20; and Louis “Buddy” Costin, 21.

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There’s an eight-day clock with them, and a calendar with days crossed off in red. The last day marked is Dec. 23, 1941. The men had survived 16 days after the attack.

A Navy officer retrieves the storeroom calendar and sends it to the Pentagon, where it is lost and never seen again. The eight-day Seth Thomas clock was saved and is now on exhibit at the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston, W. Va.

The families are never officially told how the three sailors died. Their grave markers have Dec. 7, 1941, as the date of death. The story slowly seeps out to relatives, other sailors in the Navy.

After extensive repair at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Wash., the West Virginia takes part in significant battles in the Pacific, including Leyte, Mindoro, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The battleship is also part of the massive Navy presence in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese formally sign documents of surrender aboard the USS Missouri. The West Virginia and the light cruiser USS Detroit3 are the only two ships from Pearl Harbor that are in Toyko Bay that day.

The West Virginia was decommissioned in January 1947 and sold for scrap in August 1959. Her jackstaff4 was given to Harrison County in 1963.

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One of the three: Clifford Olds, right, with shipmates Jack Miller, left, and Frank Kosa on the night before Pearl Harbor. Kosa was killed in February 1944.

I think about Pearl Harbor as Linda and I wheel away from Clarksburg. The attack is a story of tragedy, horror, courage5 and profound grief, and America does its best to honor it.

But I believe history would’ve been better served if the documents of surrender had been signed aboard the West Virginia instead of the Missouri6. The ship paid a heavy price at the war’s beginning; she should have been the setting for its end. The ship and her crew — especially Endicott, Olds and Costin — deserved it.


1 — Which translates to Come on a Pony.
2 — The official count is 2,403.
3 — The Detroit was not damaged in the attack.
4 — The flag pole is the West Virginia’s jackstaff, the pole in the bow of the ship.
5 — Doris “Dorie” Miller, a cook aboard the West Virginia, was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism — he fired an anti-aircraft gun at Japanese planes and helped injured men to safety when the ammo ran out. He was the first African American sailor to receive the medal. (If you need further reference, he was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor.”) Miller was killed on Nov, 24, 1943, when his ship the USS Liscome Bay was hit by a torpedo near Butaritari Island.
6 — They say the Missouri was chosen because Harry Truman was from Missouri and had a personal connection with it; his daughter christened the ship. But it was also the flagship of the Third Fleet and served honorably in the war. You could also make a reasonable case for other ships. I can understand that, but I still would have argued strenuously on behalf of the West Virginia.

The Mission Soundtrack, or: How Louis Armstrong and Arlo Guthrie Got Us There

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And in the morning when you filled my eyes 
I knew that day I couldn’t do, ahh, no wrong, I couldn’t do

— Cat Stevens

Sept. 7 | Day 1: We leave well after dark on the first day, just to get underway and put some distance between us and home. The destination is Woodstock, Va., about 85 miles. The motorcycles — and the first song — are ready at 2230 hours.

Two years ago, I started the tradition of playing a song for Linda at the start of each riding day, and this trip is no different. Since we’re heading for New Orleans, choosing her first song, the one she listens to this dark night, is easy: The City of New Orleans, by Arlo Guthrie.

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I loaded about 30 songs on the iPod for New Orleans, with some mission-specific tunes from Louie Armstrong, Ike and Tina Turner, and a few others. Other pieces were meant to lighten the mood after visiting somber places like Selma, Alabama, and Money, Mississippi.

This is what Linda heard during the ride:

Day 1, Sept. 7: The City of New Orleans / Arlo Guthrie

Day 2, Sept. 8: Fill My Eyes / Cat Stevens

Day 3, Sept. 9: Just a Ride / Jem

Day 4, Sept. 10: You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice / The Lovin’ Spoonful1

Day 5, Sept. 11: Dog & Butterfly / Heart

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Day 6, Sept. 12: Proud Mary / Ike & Tina Turner

Day 7, Sept. 13: When the Saints Go Marching In / Louie Armstrong

Day 8, Sept. 14: Edge of the Ocean / Ivy

Day 9, Sept. 15: Chelsea Morning / Joni Mitchell

Day 10, Sept. 16: Baby You Know Me / Wolfboy Red

Day 11, Sept. 17: Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans / Louis Armstrong

Day 12, Sept. 18: I Only Have Eyes for You / The Flamingos

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Day 13, Sept. 19: Two Hearts / Phil Collins

Day 14, Sept. 20: Chattanooga Choo-Choo / Glen Miller & His Orchestra

Day 15, Sept. 21: Count On Me / Jefferson Starship

Day 16, Sept. 22: Captain of Her Heart / Double

Day 17, Sept. 23: It Don’t Come Easy / Ringo Starr

Day 18, Sept. 24: Sentimental Lady / Bob Welch

Day 19, Sept. 25: We Are the Champions / Queen

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The list wasn’t perfect, of course. I anticipated Chattanooga, but we changed course going home and unexpectedly stayed in Memphis. I would have given much for the haunting Walking in Memphis by Marc Cohn. Alas, I wasn’t packing a laptop, so there was no way to download it.

Not all of the songs were directly related to New Orleans. We heard You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice at dinner one night at the Italian Café, so it was sort of a touchstone in addition to the nice sentiment.

Two Hearts was blasting across the night in 2009 at a remote Shell station in Slovakia2. We had left Hungary, crossed the Danube River enroute to Zvolen, and got lost after dark. I shut down the rented BMW motorcycle to refuel at the gas station, where the song was playing, incongruously and very loud.

Louie Armstrong also carried a poignant reminder of Jozef Pavlovic, the husband of Iva, one of my relatives in Slovakia. He passed away unexpectedly in 2012 at a young age. We met him during our travels to Slovakia and Hungary and he was a truly wonderful person.

He liked Satchmo’s music and I thought about Jozef quite a few times during the ride. I deeply regret the inability to get to know him better, but I’ll always remember him.

Music preserves memories, they say. Accordingly, our mission soundtracks constitute a special archive all their own.


1 — I love the 1965 video of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Notice how someone hastily put a piece of paper with the band’s name on it over the front of the bass drum.
2 — Curiously, we heard American music everywhere during our two motorcycle trips in Europe. It may be common, but I had not expected it.

 

So This is Saraland

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Sept. 12 | Day 6: I sometimes do things for the most trivial of reasons1 and our stop in Saraland, Ala., was one of them.

At work four months earlier, I discovered Saraland by accident while compiling a massive database of retail store closings across the country. By coincidence, I was working with an intern named Sara2, a brilliant graduate student at American University.

“Hey, look,” I wrote when forwarding her the link. “They named a town after you.”

“As well they should,” she said.

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Idly curious, I searched for other Sara-named towns in the U.S. — Saraville, Sara City, Sara Heights — and found only this Saraland, a town of 13,000.

So Saraland became a bit of a running joke between us, though I suspect it was more of a one-way street running from me to her.

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The notion of actually visiting Saraland didn’t occur to me until Linda and I decided on New Orleans as the 2017 motorcycle ride. There were places I wanted to see in Alabama on our way outbound and Saraland fell into the flightpath.

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That’s why we’re spending a few moments here in Saraland, off I-65 some 43 miles south of Atmore, Ala.

Just for chuckles, I shoot a few Saraland photos and email them to Sara and I find a Hibbett Sports store3 where I get a Spartans athletic shirt. Linda and I have lunch at the Saraland Sonic4.

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I’ll carry that shirt aboard Terra Nova all the way back to Virginia. Later, I’ll box it up and send it to her at work. So now Sara has her own Saraland Spartans shirt purchased in Saraland.

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Sara and I may never work together again.

But we’ll always have Saraland5.


1 — I once visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., to see if I could find a Marine mentioned by Michael Herr in his excellent but disturbing book, Dispatches.
2 — Who went on to a better position, job-wise. She’s doing some great work, too.
3 — 723 Highway 43 South, Saraland, Alabama 36571
4 — 619 Highway 43 South, Saraland, Alabama 36571
5 — Apologies to Humphrey Bogart.

A Guy and His Dog

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(With apologies to Harlan Ellison for the title)

Sept. 16 | Day 10: We got up early on our last full day in New Orleans and walked over to Café Du Monde, where the beignets and cold milk are the best, and cut through Jackson Square on the way back.

The Square1 is crowded with tourists, street vendors and what looks to be homeless people, who’ve taken the lead in commandeering metal park benches that line the street.

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Linda wants to look at some shops along St. Peter Street and I investigate one or two myself and find high-priced stuff I don’t need. She’s in someplace that sells linen or something and I’m dawdling on the sidewalk when I hear raised voices across the street behind me.

I turn to see a group of six or seven apparently homeless guys on a bench angrily yelling at another guy nearby, also apparently homeless, with a medium-sized black-and-white dog. The dog owner is folding up a sheet of plastic.

“Don’t you hit that dog!” one of the bench dwellers says to the owner.

“That is not cool, man!” says another.

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The owner says nothing. I’m standing there trying to figure out what’s happened. The dog is on a leash and is following the owner, who’s finished packing his stuff and is walking off. The dog — and this is important to me — does not seem cowed or afraid.

The bench guys, briefly united against a perceived cruelty, settle down.

Linda returns and I tell her what happened, adding that I did not see the guy hit the dog and that the dog seemed okay.

We walk around the Quarter for a while longer, trying to savor this last day, knowing we’ll suit up and head into Mississippi on the motorcycles tomorrow.

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But now there’s a nagging thought at the back of my mind as we range from Chartres to Royal to Bourbon Street and beyond. Is that guy abusing his dog?

Linda and I have two dogs and four cats back home at Starbase 8 in Virginia. So we love dogs and cats and the notion that there’s a dog suffering out there on Jackson Square starts to consume me.

We make a reservation at Irene’s Cuisine for that night, our only dinner in the Quarter. We’ll walk there, of course, but now I have an idea.

“This is going to sound crazy, but I want to go by Jackson Square,” I say to Linda. “Let’s see if we can find that guy and his dog. I want to know.”

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My understanding wife consents to this ridiculous reconnaissance. Night falls as we regain the square, still sprinkled with tourists, and we walk the length of St. Peter Street twice under streetlights.

“We’re probably not going to find them,” I say, resigning myself to it, and suddenly, there they are.

There they are. We sort of surreptitiously follow them for a short distance — I want to see the relationship between the guy and the dog.

He’s a young guy, middle 20s, I think, and there doesn’t seem to be any abuse going on. We approach by asking about the dog, what he is, his age and that sort of thing. Linda pets the dog, who looks happy.

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Like this, sorta.

The guy thinks his dog is a mix of Dalmatian and some other breed. He came from friends who couldn’t keep him. The guy says he was living somewhere but has been on the street for a while.

“Would you have some change you could give me?” he asks, and I make the biggest mistake of the New Orleans ride and give him three measly dollars from a pants pocket, not wishing to pull out my wallet on the street.

He takes it with thanks but I sense he’s a tad disappointed that it’s not more. Or maybe that’s my projected guilt.

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Linda gives the dog a final pat and we say good-bye and watch them disappear into the night. The intersection ends there; we go to dinner and back to our lives, and he and his dog continue with theirs.

I’m relieved — greatly relieved — that the dog is okay but I kick myself a hundred times for not giving more to his owner. I’ve failed to live up to the example set by the baseball cap gentleman in Selma, Alabama, six days ago. All because I didn’t want to take out my wallet.

Later that night, I offer a bit of karmic atonement by donating online to the New Orleans Humane Society. But it isn’t enough.

The next day, two guys — the first with a baseball cap, the second with his dog — haunt me as I pack up the bikes. They stay with me as we ride north toward Hattiesburg, Miss., to pay tribute to a U.S. Navy pilot who died in Korea 67 years ago.


1 —  Jackson Square is named after President Andrew Jackson, considered the hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The battle was a series of skirmishes between U.S. and British forces in 1814 and 1815, and is considered the last major engagement of the War of 1812.

Motorcycle travel